Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said his parents had to be creative for his Thanksgiving feast, which had to be turkey-free.
Newton, 24, challenged himself in March by becoming a pescetarian, giving up all meat and animal flesh except fish. He likes how it makes him feel, including increased energy and alertness, though acknowledged he has been tempted.
"When I go around the guys or I go around a particular place and they have chicken wings, they have prime rib, they have steak, it's just something for me to pinch myself and challenge myself," Newton said. "I can put my mind to a lot of different things as well."
Newton's improved discipline isn't limited to his diet. He also has streamlined his play on the field, a big reason why the Panthers (9-3) are the hottest team in the league, winners of seven straight, heading into Sunday's home game against the Bucs. The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn has shown the ability to do it all. The athletic dual threat took the NFL by storm as a rookie in 2011, capping touchdowns with a Superman pose celebration.
But after Newton struggled last season, he stopped trying to do too much, started trusting his sidekicks more. He has been efficient and effective, taking what defenses give him instead of trying to take over the game.
"He still runs. He still does all the things that make him exciting," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "But he doesn't force passes. He's doing all the things that winning quarterbacks do."
Newton's numbers don't jump off the page: 18th in passing yards (2,353), 16th in passer rating (88.3) and tied for 10th in touchdown passes (17). But he has completed a career-high 61.7 percent of his passes and thrown just nine interceptions.
Newton is elusive as ever and can still beat teams with his feet. He averages 4.9 yards per rush and had 50 yards and a touchdown in a 31-13 win over the Bucs on Oct. 24.
"He's really bought into being a true pocket passer," Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "And he's more than talented to do anything offensively."
With the ninth-best running game in the league and third-best overall defense, Newton says the Panthers have bought into a "we" rather than "me" mentality.
"Obviously, over time, a player, a person, a human being will change their ways or upgrade to a degree. And I think that's what I've done," Newton said. "Coming in and having a different approach, and it's been showing come game day. But as far as me changing as a whole player, person, nothing's really changed. I still have the same aggressive mentality but also take what the defense gives me."
Newton set the bar high in winning the 2011 offensive rookie of the year award. He set an NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (14) and became the first player to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 500. Carolina coach Ron Rivera said that created "unfair expectations," and Newton didn't handle them well, though it wasn't all his fault.
Still, after Carolina started 1-6 last season, Newton received much of the blame, even criticized — including by teammates — for his body language on the sideline.
Rivera said Newton learned to cope with it, matured and developed. A winner in junior college and a BCS national champion with Auburn, Newton has now won 15 of his past 21 starts.
"Some people expect it to happen overnight, and that's not true," said Rivera, whose team won its final four games last season to finish 7-9. "Everyone is going through a developmental process. Last year, everyone was talking about (Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III). Now everybody's saying, 'Well, look at him now.' It takes time. Our guy took a little bit of time.
"Now look at him."