I walk to Carolina Panthers practice Thursday, stuck in a logjam behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and from the back there’s a voice, talking and singing, loud and low.
It’s Cam Newton. As many times as I’ve seen him, I have to look twice. He’s listed at 6-foot-5 and 244 pounds, same as last season. But he looks bigger, broader.
Newton sees a photographer on top of a hill and stops to pose. He sees the media waiting and bends way down to talk to the 5-10 Stewart, taking notes in an imaginary notebook with an imaginary pen.
Newton is “leading by example, playing hard, having a good time, keeping it light,” says Carolina coach Ron Rivera. “He’s really become what you hope in your starting quarterback.”
Newton throws some pretty passes during the session, but so do reserves Derek Anderson and Jimmy Clausen. That’s Clausen flinging a perfect pass down the left sideline to Richie Brockel.
Remember those names.
Remember, too, that no matter who is throwing, the defensive backs aren’t allowed to hit. Without pads and helmets, it is touch football, and the offense has every advantage.
Newton has a few. Your eyes go to him. So do his teammates. Newton is larger than most and more enthusiastic than all but a few. Although the coronation is unofficial, this team is his.
“It’s a lot of people’s team,” says Newton, 23. “I’m not going to say, ‘Hey, the Carolina Panthers are my team.’ ”
Newton praises linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, who missed last season with injuries but are both at practice Thursday, albeit on the sideline. Newton talks about other leaders such as Ryan Kalil, Steve Smith and Jordan Gross.
As reporters begin to gather around Newton, he sneaks into the adjoining group surrounding Gross. Gross sees him. It’s tough for Newton to be anonymous these days.
“You know,” says Gross, “if Cam Newton could just do anything out there.”
Newton asks Gross about reporters who nod as they listen but write something different the next day.
Gross, a wise man, wisely says he’s not familiar with the practice.
Newton talks about how valuable sessions such as Thursday are. He can work with teammates, talk with coaches and take plays written in a book and bring them to life. As a rookie last season he didn’t have the opportunity in late May and early June because of the lockout.
“Everybody’s been held accountable,” says Newton, his electric blue and black shoes sparking in the sunshine. “You know the playmakers are going to have to make plays, the leaders are going to have to lead, and if you got to ask yourself what you are, you’re neither.”
Newton doesn’t ask himself what he is.
He’s “encouraging teammates to keep working hard, and pushing himself,” says Rivera. “Really, the one thing about Cam, he just doesn’t say it, he does it. I’m pretty excited about what were getting from him.”
Nobody asks Newton if he plans to leave Charlotte when his contract expires. The topic is bizarrely popular on sports talk radio.
I mean, if everybody combs their hair and shines their shoes and keeps on singing the blues and drops to one knee when Newton passes do you think Cam will stay?
Call the callers consumed by the issue and you probably get a recording: “Hi this is Ed and I can’t come to the phone right now because I’m manufacturing issues to worry about.”
A more interesting and valid issue is Carolina’s offense. I ask Newton how the 2012 offense will differ from 2011’s and he says, “Find a way to put up more points.”
I think the offensive will look like a perpetual fastbreak. I think rules will be dispensed with and chances taken.
The Panthers have Newton and Smith and tight end Greg Olsen and Williams and Stewart and new back Mike Tolbert and a season of experience with coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Players are going to line up in places few have, Chudzinski will roll out the ball and gentlemen start your engines.
But wait. Now that defenses know Newton, won’t they adjust and force him to adjust? Won’t season two be more difficult?
“I don’t think it necessarily has to be tougher,” says Rivera.
Rivera adds: “It’s not just about one guy, it really isn’t. And I know people want to talk about he could potentially have a slump. If he has a slump, we all have a slump.”
Some teams excel when their quarterback fails to. The Panthers are not equipped to be one of these teams.
They won’t have to be.