CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton sat at his locker, his head buried in his hands.
He still had his uniform on. Wide receiver Steve Smith had come over earlier to talk quietly to Newton for a few minutes, but now the rookie quarterback was silent and alone again. Many of his teammates had long ago showered and gone.
Newton was brooding again, upset at the fourth fourth-quarter loss his 1-4 Panther team has sustained in five games. This time it took even longer than it has in the first three losses for him to pull himself together enough to change clothes and meet with reporters a little more than an hour after the Panthers concluded their 30-27 loss to New Orleans.
Some players get angry when they lose. Some affect a mask of neutrality. Some act so sad that youd swear that not only did they lose the game but they also just got fired and their dog just died.
Newton belongs in the last of those three categories. He is utterly forlorn in defeat.
It hurts losing, period, Newton said when I asked him during his press conference if there was a reason he stayed so long at his locker after the game. You know you have standards and when you dont meet that quota of yourself, you just ask yourself why. Theres a reason we keep losing and I want to know the reason.
One of the reasons Sunday was Newton, of course. He played very well in the middle 58 minutes of the game, when the Panthers came back from 10 points down to build a 27-23 lead, but was not good enough in both the first minute of the game and the last one.
On the games very first play from scrimmage, Newton threw a slant pass toward the middle while Smith ran an out route to the sideline. The resulting interception and return placed the ball at the Carolina 3, and so the Saints had a 7-0 lead by the time the game was 70 seconds old.
It was my fault, Newton said of that miscommunication.
Newton then did his thing for most of the rest of the game. He threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns, ran for a third TD, extended one play after another and generally played like the NFL Rookie of the Year that he will surely be.
But Newton made a couple of key errors late. On the first, the Panthers had a third-and-2 at the Carolina 45. Facing single coverage, Smith cut inside and took off. Newton threw to the outside.
We just werent on the same page, Newton said.
If Newton could have held the ball a split-second longer and adjusted his throw to Smiths route, thats a touchdown and the game is likely over.
Then Newton got the ball back one final time after the Panthers defense had failed to stop Drew Brees. Carolina was down by three but with 51 seconds and three timeouts remaining.
The Panthers needed only a field goal to send the game into overtime. The drive fizzled, though, never reaching beyond the New Orleans 49.
Great quarterbacks convert in the fourth quarter. Newton for all his flashy statistics isnt great yet. Hes had fourth-quarter chances to win in every single game this year, but only in the Jacksonville game did he convert enough of them.
Great quarterbacks also inspire their teammates. Newton does some of that now his work ethic has been a pleasant surprise but hes got more to do in that area, too.
Things dont go well all the time. Newtons final two years as a collegian on the field, at least were a storybook series of successes. Its not like that in the NFL. Hes going to lose, and hes going to have to learn how to take losing a little better.
A good leader grabs his team by the shoulder pads and pulls them up when everyone is down about a loss. But Newton is so involved in his private pain after losses that he has a hard time letting anyone else inside.
Theres so much to like about Newton. Dont misunderstand me hes the biggest reason this team has hope again. He has both Super Bowl and hall of fame potential. I love watching him.
He knows how to win. How to throw. How to run.
But Newton has got to get better at three things how to learn from losing. How to lead. And how to finish.
When Newton gets those three down pat, theres no limit to what he will do.