CHARLOTTE — Jersey numbers in football are a big deal, both to players and to fans. Unlike most sports, the numbers are so large (12 inches exactly on the back of the Panthers' official jerseys, 10 on the front) that coaches frequently refer to players by numbers rather than names. Fans wear replica jerseys to games in huge numbers, which translates into major cash for a lot of people.
So the Cam Newton/Jimmy Clausen "Who will wear No. 2?" question, while seemingly minor, is one that echoes in a lot of hills. If I'm Newton, I forget about No. 2 and figure out another plan, which I'll explain later.
First, to bring you up to date: Clausen wore No. 2 as a rookie last season for Carolina. Newton wore No. 2 as a Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn. But the rookie has temporarily been assigned No. 1 by the Panthers, according to sources, because veterans have first dibs on their own numbers. So a No. 1 jersey hangs in Newton's locker right now.
Newton has said he would like to wear No. 2 in the NFL, but apparently hasn't talked to Clausen about the price this would involve despite months of opportunity to do so − maybe because it's an awkward topic to broach. Newton plans to do so very soon, however, and Clausen has told people he's willing to listen to the pitch. In past years on this and other teams, players have paid other players to give up a desired number.
For now, Clausen is scheduled to wear No. 2 for the Panthers this weekend in training camp in Spartanburg, S.C. But Newton may not wear No. 1. He can keep it, but he is also eligible to pick from a handful of other unused numbers from 1-19 and said Monday he is "still thinking about it," according to a source. He will need to decide within the next 48 hours.
Along with 1, numbers like 5, 6, 13, 14, 18 and 19 are all available. You can bet whatever Newton picks it will be in stores and available online for purchase immediately.
If I'm Newton, at this point, I let No. 2 go and let Clausen have it. If Newton hasn't talked to Clausen about it yet, through all those joint workouts, he shouldn't try to take it away on the eve of training camp - not with the two of them in the same room, trying to win the same job and needing to learn from each other. It might cause a bit of bad blood, and the Panthers will badly need unity at the game's most important position.
But if I'm Newton, I also turn back in the No. 1 the Panthers temporarily assigned him. Talk about a target on your back! No. 1 pick, No. 1 jersey, No. 1 player in college football last season − it's all too perfect.
Defenders already salivating at knocking that $22-million-dollar smile off Newton's face - that's the amount of guaranteed money he should receive in the first four years of his contract − would drool even more.
I think Newton gets that. He has spent much of the offseason trying not to make waves. He has impressed his new teammates by doing some of the offensive line drills like flipping tractor tires at the Panthers' unofficial, players-only workouts, for instance.
"He's trying to earn our respect, not demand it right away," offensive tackle Jordan Gross said of Newton earlier this summer. "I think that says a lot about his character."
This decision will, too. Unless Clausen really doesn't care a bit about making the switch and wants to actually get rid of the bad memories of No. 2 and the 2-14 season that accompanied it in 2010, Newton needs to leave No. 2 for Clausen. If Newton is absolutely stuck on having No. 2, he and Clausen should arrange a deal in which Newton donates a few thousand dollars to a local charity for the rights to the number.
But Newton also needs to skip the dangerous No. 1 imagery and go with something else entirely. I'm sure he can find some symbolism among all the choices remaining. I think No. 5, No. 14 or No. 19 would look good on him myself, but there are plenty of choices there.
So take a new number, Cam. Then everybody stays happy and you can keep yourself as low-profile as a No. 1 overall draft pick can possibly be, which is, of course, not very low at all.
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