Panthers' Cam Newton still 'just one of the guys'

jperson@charlotteobserver.comJuly 30, 2012 

— An engaging star with a winning smile drew lots of attention at Wofford College on Monday evening.

Cam Newton.

On a night when South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was at Panthers’ camp, the feature attraction, as he has been since taking the NFL by storm last season, was Newton, the Panthers’ quarterback.

Panthers center Ryan Kalil is the one who took out a full-page ad in the Observer last week promising fans a Super Bowl. But Newton is in other commercials and just about everywhere else you look these days.

“He’s a mega-superstar already,” Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said.

Newton has endorsement deals with Under Armour and Gatorade, both of which have featured him prominently in their ad campaigns.

But Newton’s teammates – including a couple of veteran offensive linemen who told him last season he needed to step up his leadership skills – say Newton has not let his stardom create a rift in the locker room.

“We haven’t had a guy that gets as much attention in the media as he has since I’ve been on the team. And I think a lot of times that can put some distance between you and your teammates,” said offensive tackle Jordan Gross, who is beginning his 10th year with the team. “But Cam fits in great. He’s out there in the stretch line. We goof around. We have fun. We give him a hard time just like everybody else. And he gives us a hard time.

“The little things that will really make the team follow somebody is when they know that he’s there and he’s just one of the guys. And he’s a great example to follow.”

In the midst of his record-breaking rookie season, Newton did not hide his disappointment when things went wrong. Before the Panthers’ 28-13 win at Houston in Week 15, Kalil and Gross took Newton aside and told him to improve his body language and keep his negative emotions in check.

In May, Newton told Yahoo Sports he was a “bad teammate” in 2011, and that he understands he is the face of the franchise, even without the endorsements or commercials. As such, he knows what is expected.

“It’s already given. There’s certain positions in this league where leadership comes with the price of admission,” Newton said. “I play quarterback. That’s the most scrutinized, criticized and critiqued position of all of sports, I believe. So when you play this position, you have to have a certain leadership that everybody looks for, whether you want it or not.”

Little things

Despite his high public profile, it’s the things Newton does that few people see that have earned him respect among the team’s veteran leaders. Newton is usually among the last to leave Bank of America Stadium.

Kalil said teammates notice.

“You see him in the commercials and all that kind of stuff and it’s easy to think he’s just enjoying the offseason. But that’s not the case at all,” Kalil said. “He’s really committed to having a better season, being a better quarterback and being a better teammate and leader. And guys see that.”

Newton broke Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record with 4,051 yards and became the first quarterback in league history to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 500 in a season. He also set a record with his 14 rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.

But Newton said when he watched tape from his Rookie-of-the-Year campaign, he saw plenty he could improve, whether it be making better reads or avoiding turnovers.

“Just working on being great,” Newton said. “It’s the little things. Everybody wants to win the big hoo-rah, the Super Bowl. But let’s worry about today.”

Understanding the game

Gross said it’s evident Newton has a much stronger understanding of the offense.

“You know he knows what he’s doing out there now. He’s calling the plays quick. He’s making adjustments, directing the pass protection, which is something that last year I think he didn’t have a big grasp on,” Gross said. “We’re all just working together better. If he continues to improve like that, it’s just going to be more and more fun to be on a team with him.”

With his daring runs, cannon-like arm and Superman celebration, Newton is fun to watch, too. A record crowd of nearly 13,000 attended the Panthers’ first practice Saturday at Wofford, and Newton stayed late signing autographs.

Head coach Ron Rivera appreciates the national attention Newton has brought to the Panthers. But Rivera also is uneasy with Newton being the only storyline.

“When you look at what happened last year and what we did as a football team, there was a lot of good things that happened that did start with him. But it doesn’t end with him,” said Rivera, who mentioned several other position groups.

And while the excitement at training camp is as thick as the humidity at the Panthers’ night practices, Newton wants to give the region something more to celebrate.

“There’s a vibe going around the whole Carolinas, and it’s a good vibe. The sad thing about it is we’re only just scratching the surface. We went 6-10 last year. That’s nothing to be happy about,” Newton said.

“But at the same time … it’s a buzz and it’s a potential that this team has. But like the saying says, potential ain’t never won nothing. So we have to go out and focus on the small things.”

And hope they lead to a big season.

Person: 704-358-5123 Twitter: @josephperson

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