The evolution of Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton

jjones@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 7, 2013 

It’s a blend of nerves and restlessness that keeps Cam Newton awake nights before NFL games.

He scrolls through his iTunes account, buying music and assembling new playlists. He watches “SportsCenter,” replaying the day’s college football highlights so often that he knows what the anchors will say before they say it.

“I’m good if I go to sleep by 1,” Newton said. “I’ve been up til 4 o’clock. Look at the clock and it’s 1:30. Look back at the clock, it’s 3:15. What?”

It’s Year 3 for Cam Newton as quarterback of the Carolina Panthers. Most often seen in public with his magnetic smile and Superman-pose confidence, he’s coming off a year in which he and the Panthers finished strong but missed the playoffs. He broke even more records but was routinely criticized for his demeanor and interactions with teammates.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding with me,” Newton said in a recent 90-minute interview with the Observer. “Yeah, I like to look good. Yeah, I like to have fun. Yeah, I have a passion and I’m goofy and I wear my emotions on my sleeve. Maybe I’m a sore loser or maybe I’m not the best person to lose a game with, but who is? When it comes down to this game, and if you’re on my side, I’m with you.”

He says he wants to be the best teammate and leader possible and this past offseason he looked hard at himself. He studied not only game film but also his post-game press conferences. He thinks he’s misunderstood, but he also now has a better understanding of why and is making adjustments.

More than anything, Newton would like to put the Panthers into the playoffs – winning cures a lot, he says. He’s even gotten advice from Jake Delhomme, a former Carolina quarterback who didn’t have the physical skills Newton has, but who was adored by teammates and fans alike as he took the Panthers to the Super Bowl a decade ago.

Now, as another NFL season begins, when Newton can’t sleep it’s because he knows he has something to prove.

In 2009, Newton was somewhere he never expected to be.

He had been highly recruited out of Atlanta’s Westlake High and spent his first two years at Florida before an arrest for a laptop theft derailed his time in Gainesville in 2008.

He transferred from Florida, which won the BCS National Championship that year, to Blinn, a junior college in Brenham, Texas, with an enrollment of about 5,000 students. There, he says, he began to remake himself.

Gone were the days of unlimited Nike cleats, sweatbands, armbands and other extras that come with a top football program. At Blinn, you got one pair of cleats and socks. Some players, Newton said, resorted to stealing shoelaces from a nearby sporting goods store.

His teammates were shocked when he told them about all the gear he received at Florida. They’d ask him what his ex-teammates, including Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow and star wide receiver Percy Harvin, were like. And often, Newton held court in the Texas junior college cafeteria.

“Many times I would be at a dining hall and it would start with two or three people and it would end with 13 or 20 people I’m talking to saying, ‘Look man, you wouldn’t believe this…’” Newton said.

He says he learned how to fit in with people who weren’t like him. From suburban Atlanta, Newton was one of the few Blinn players who was not from Texas. He acclimated himself to the music, the style of dress and the Texas accents.

Blinn went 11-1, won the National Junior College Athletic Association National Championship and Newton eventually chose Auburn as his next destination. He remembers one particular day with his Blinn teammates, and the connection they had.

With a handful of teammates around him on the field, Newton, in full uniform in the middle of the crowd, began rapping for a nearby camera. Blinn players chimed in rhythmically with “Uh’s” between pauses.

“…On my car,” Newton began a new verse.

“You ain’t got no car!,” a teammate deadpanned and Newton collapsed in laughter.

“It was so pure, man,” Newton said recently, smiling. “I went there with nothing and I left with everything.”

‘The wrong attitude’

As a college junior, he led Auburn to an undefeated season, an SEC championship, a BCS national championship and won the Heisman Trophy before the Panthers took him No.1 overall in the 2011 NFL draft.

Newton was “unconscious” in his first NFL game, he says. He passed for 422 yards, shattering the previous rookie debut record by more than 100 yards, and accounted for three touchdowns.

But a late-fourth quarter fourth-down completion came up 2 yards short of the goal line and the Panthers lost to the Cardinals, 28-21.

Newton was inconsolable after the loss. Later, he would cry.

“I was so paralyzed,” Newton remembers. “I didn’t talk to nobody. It was awkward. I made the situation so awkward. I would come in that locker room and I wouldn’t talk to nobody. Nobody. Nobody.

“I just felt like nobody understood or felt like I felt, which was absolutely the wrong attitude.”

The losses mounted and Newton’s demeanor hardly changed. It came to a head in Week 3 of the 2012 season when the Panthers lost 36-7 to the Giants at home on national television.

Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith lit into Newton for sulking on the bench while backup Derek Anderson played out the fourth quarter. Newton’s postgame news conference mirrored his sideline composure and he offered a suggestion box to anyone in the media who had an answer to the Panthers’ woes.

Five weeks later, Newton was criticized for not congratulating wide receiver Louis Murphy when he recovered a Newton fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. Both players later said it wasn’t an issue, and Murphy said he wasn’t looking for thanks.

“You don’t get a bubble or a ding to tell you the camera’s on you,” Newton said. “… Sometimes you don’t understand how much you impact something, or you may take it for granted. It was nothing ever against my teammates. It’s just that I’m so – and I’ve got to tone it down to a degree – but my competitive nature will never be flushed out of my body.”

Questions about Newton’s demeanor now not only draws a sigh from the quarterback, but also from his teammates.

Running back DeAngelo Williams has grown tired of people questioning his teammate. The quarterback position is a leadership role whether one wants to be a leader or not, he says, and Newton has the qualities to be one.

“He’s a leader, regardless of what the outside people say about Cam or how they see him in terms of his body language and things like that,” Williams said Thursday when Newton was named a team captain. “Until you know the guy, you don’t understand the body language. He hates losing a great deal, and it bothers him when he doesn’t perform well or to his standards. He holds himself to a higher standard than anybody can ever imagine.

“Nobody is under more scrutiny than Cam or any other quarterback that hasn’t produced in terms of winning.”

Smith said that when the losses began piling up, Newton, who has a 13-19 record in the NFL, could have flamed out like several other high-profile young quarterbacks.

Instead, Smith said Newton has navigated his way through the NFL to find what it means to be a franchise quarterback and a leader of 52 other men in the locker room.

“Being the first overall pick, coming in here and being viewed as the guy who’s going to help save the organization, it’s a lot of pressure,” Smith said. “As we’ve seen in the past, a lot of other players have not handled themselves as well – Todd Marinovich, Jeff George, a lot of guys who weren’t mentally capable of handling themselves or physically. I think he has the ability and the desire, not to just be a great player, but he also wants to be a great teammate.

“He’s like every other young man that’s in the working world. He’s trying to find his way in a constructive, healthy way. Has he made some mistakes along the way? We all have.”

Glimpse of Jake

Panthers coach Ron Rivera had Jake Delhomme address the team on Aug.21, a few hours before they took a flight to Baltimore for the third exhibition of the preseason.

A decade ago, Delhomme was the quarterback who led the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance – the city’s greatest professional sports moment. He stayed in Charlotte through the 2009 season.

There are a handful of Delhomme’s former teammates left, but most of the players in the meeting room in August had never heard the quarterback speak to the team.

Newton was amazed by Delhomme that day – what he said, and the conviction with which he said it.

Delhomme had something Newton coveted: Jake had the room.

“I’ve talked to him one-on-one a couple times, but I had never seen that side of him,” Newton said. “From what I saw, he had everybody in that room just…”

Newton snaps his fingers.

“He just had them. Not saying that I don’t got it, but he put it in a way that, you would have thought Jake Delhomme was a Hall of Fame quarterback the way he was talking. And that’s what I want.”

Delhomme said he just spoke from the heart. He was only supposed to talk five minutes, but that didn’t happen.

He told the current Panthers how privileged they are to be playing in the NFL. That at 38 years old and with 15 years of NFL experience, he still yearns to get back to the field.

He misses the practice field, the games, playing in the NFL. But more importantly, he misses playing in Charlotte.

“I tried to explain to them that you’ve got to embrace your time here in Carolina with the Panthers because it’s not that way in other places,” Delhomme said. “There are some good places, don’t get me wrong, but this is a special place.

“The beginning of each season is always something that, you never know what could happen. It could be great, it could be so-so and it could be terrible. When it’s great in Carolina, man I’m telling you, it’s really great.”

Delhomme lives in his native Louisiana. He says he won’t go to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints, unless the Panthers are playing.

Cam and Carolina

Is Newton all in for Carolina?

According to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, a player can begin re-negotiating his contract following his third season.

Newton signed a four-year, $22 million deal in 2011 that has a club option for a fifth year. He’ll make more than that in his second contract, but it’s a matter of how much and, more importantly for Carolina fans, when and where.

“Would I want to? Absolutely,” Newton said, when asked if he wants to make a long-term commitment to Charlotte and the Panthers. “But what people don’t understand is, there’s still a business. Charlotte will always have a place in my heart. Who am I to say I will be in Charlotte for 15 years? Who am I to say this is my last year? I don’t want to put that thought in anybody’s mind, because if I do that, I’m cheating my teammates.”

He’ll worry about the contract details when it’s time, he says. But so far, he’s made his roots in Charlotte. Along with his national endorsement deals, Newton has partnered with Carolinas Healthcare Systems to promote healthy lifestyles for children. Newton’s foundation put on School Pride Day for 40 area middle schools in the spring and funded a 7-on-7 tournament for local high school teams this summer.

“We all know that contracts come up and some go according to plan and some of them don’t,” Newton said. “Whether the team has money or not, whether the player wants to play for the team or not.

“I’ve said it numerous times where my heart is, and it’s no secret. It’s up to me to control what’s going on right now.”

Year 3 begins for Newton like the previous two: Pregnant with expectations but with a fan base bracing itself for another subpar season.

Newton says he wants to feel in Charlotte what he felt at Auburn. Newton said he wasn’t just playing the game for himself, but for so many other people.

When he first came to Charlotte in 2011, Newton says he did a double-take when he saw Giants or Redskins flags on cars. In Auburn, fans schedule weddings around the Tigers’ schedule and the school erects 10-foot bronze statues for Heisman winners.

Newton says he’s starting to feel that excitement in Charlotte. He says he will take what he learned this offseason and apply it to his game and to leading the team.

That includes all he learned from Delhomme, from both hearing him command a room to their one-on-one conversations.

Here’s what Delhomme told Newton:

“I’ve never been in Cam’s situation – first overall pick, Heisman Trophy. I’ve never been under that type of microscope. I said if you need anything I’ll be here. He knows how I feel about Charlotte and the Panthers, and I said, ‘Hey, you could own this town and own this team,’ and that’s what I’ve told him the couple of times I’ve seen him.

“Do the right thing, Charlotte will embrace you, and it could be good for a long time.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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