Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton wanted to get to know starting right tackle Byron Bell better, so he took his fellow rookie out to eat early in the 2011 season.
It was after a Wednesday practice, a few days after Carolina’s first loss of the season. The two went to The Burger Co. on West Morehead Street and had goldfinger wings and a couple of burgers.
And Newton told Bell what he expected from him.
Newton, the No. 1 overall pick, national champion and Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, told Bell, an undrafted rookie who had more than four wins in a season once at New Mexico, that he expected Bell to keep him clean.
In return, he promised to get the ball out quickly, that the Panthers would score a lot and that they would win a lot.
“My first two years weren’t like that,” said Bell, who started on 6-10 and 7-9 Panthers teams, “but right now it’s all opening up, and I guess what he told me back then, it’s coming to light now. I ain’t never lost sight of that.
“He took time out of his busy day – because I know he’s very busy – and took me out to eat. He’s got confidence in me and all of us up front. Sometimes it gets a little shaky in there, but he never loses composure. He’s a good leader and good friend.”
The Panthers (11-4) have an opportunity to win the NFC South this weekend, finish tied with the best record in team history, receive a first-round bye and host at least one playoff game.
It’s a season of realized potential for Carolina and its franchise quarterback. Newton’s record-breaking passing and rushing statistics are down, but the wins are up and, according to a team source, extending Newton’s contract will be a discussion this offseason.
Through the moping and high throws, the bad news conferences and maturity questions, Newton, at 24, has emerged as a top quarterback and a leader of men.
But don’t call this a redemption story.
“Absolutely not. It’s been a season that it’s all coming together,” Newton said. “This is a team effort like I’ve seen before, but it’s all coming at the right times. The defense is playing hard when the offense is lacking, the offense is putting up points when the defense is lacking – and that’s been very few times this year. It’s exciting to see what good coaching does on top of great effort on the field.”
An early impression
Drayton Florence realized Newton’s talents a few days into training camp.
The Panthers picked up the 11th-year cornerback during the spring and he quickly began working with the first-team defense going against Newton in Spartanburg.
“To see him move on TV is one thing,” Florence said, “but to see it in person? To see how he spins the ball, his arm strength, in the pocket, out of the pocket, the first few days of training camp you can tell. It didn’t take long.”
At that time, Newton’s talent hadn’t translated into many wins. At 13-19, Newton wasn’t labeled a winner and was perceived as lagging behind his contemporaries at quarterback – Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton, Matthew Stafford and Colin Kaepernick, to name a few.
So when the Panthers began another season slowly, some called for Newton’s job.
The chorus grew loudest following the 22-6 loss Oct. 6 at Arizona, sending the Panthers to 1-3. Carolina was coming off a bye and was spanked by a 2-2 Cardinals team that wasn’t considered a playoff contender then. The leading voice for change was NBC analyst and two-time Super Bowl-winning cornerback Rodney Harrison before “Sunday Night Football.”
“It’s just time to switch quarterbacks,” Harrison said on “Football Night in America,” NBC’s pregame show. “Cam Newton has struggled time and time again. We’ve seen flash opportunities for him to get better, and just time and time again it just seems like he regresses.”
Some inside the Panthers’ locker room had heard Harrison’s comments, but Newton hadn’t heard anything about them until Thursday. He offered a rhetorical “really?” and a slight chuckle before he responded.
“I can’t take this personally because I’m held to a standard to win football games,” Newton said. “I wasn’t winning football games, and heck, I’d be saying bench Cam Newton, too, if I wasn’t getting the job done. This is a dog-eat-dog world, and you have to produce in this line of work. You see it happen to the best of them. When you don’t do things that you’re supposed to do, it’s time for changes.”
Then Newton began doing what he was drafted for. In the 11 games since that Arizona loss, Newton is 10-1, best among all starting quarterbacks. His completion percentage is at 63.9 – four percentage points higher than his career average – and his passer rating is 93.6, seven points higher than his average.
He has led four fourth-quarter comebacks this season, tied for second-most in the NFL. A drive against San Francisco led to a winning field goal, then a last-minute touchdown beat the Patriots the following week. Another closing-minute touchdown topped the Dolphins.
Finally, there was last week’s five-play, 65-yard drive in 32 seconds, beating the Saints and giving Carolina control of the division.
Following the New Orleans win, Harrison joked he has been saying all along Carolina was a playoff team.
“These (quarterbacks) are scrutinized, to some extent, like the President of the United States. It’s amazing to me,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said this month. “But he has a magical smile, he has a way of kind of giving you that look like it’s all going to be OK. He’s living up to it. He’s become what we thought he was going to be when he started his career, and it’s happening pretty fast.
“People want to go, ‘Oh we didn’t see it in the first two years.’ Well look around. You start getting close to 30 and that’s when most quarterbacks start to get it a little bit. There are exceptions out there obviously, but this is a guy who’s getting it pretty quickly.”
A role model on a roll
Newton made Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly realize life in the NFL wasn’t as tough as he thought it was going to be.
In Spartanburg, Kuechly’s locker was close to Newton’s when Kuechly was a rookie last season, and he recalls seeing Newton always smiling while listening to his boom box during training camp.
“I was like, ‘All right, it’s not so bad,’ ” Kuechly said. “If Cam’s smiling, it’s not so bad. He was in a good mood during camp and it kind of kept me going.”
It’s Newton’s nature to keep the mood light, and his teammates say he has done a better job of that during 2013 than ever before.
The special teams unit and Newton don’t interact much during practice, but Newton has been known to creep up behind Graham Gano and whisper “a little bit of pressure” before a Gano kick.
In the first half of the Nov. 3 game against Atlanta, Newton jogged off the field as Gano came on and whispered it.
“I couldn’t believe he said it to me in a game,” Gano said with a laugh.
Two weeks later, the Panthers were playing in their biggest game yet, against the Patriots on “Monday Night Football.” Newton had orchestrated an 11-play drive from the Carolina 17 and had the Panthers in the red zone with 1 minute, 17 seconds left in the game when Bell was flagged for a false start.
Bell went back to the huddle upset with himself for costing the team 5 yards on a must-score drive.
“Most people would get mad or flustered,” Bell said. “He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Here we go. We’re about to get it.’ He turned around and threw a touchdown to Ted (Ginn Jr.) two plays later.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula called Newton his favorite player he has ever coached.
“He’s fun because he’s full of life, he loves football,” Shula said. “His personality, he’s a sponge. You can get on him and it doesn’t bother him. He doesn’t have an ego that way. And yet he still is in the learning process. That just brings energy to you as a coach, get yourself motivated to coach this guy.
“Here’s a guy that is just going to continue to get better and better as long as you push him, he pushes himself and learns from his mistakes and you can have a lot of fun along the way doing it.”
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn realized Newton was coach Ron Rivera’s guy before the quarterback took his first regular-season snap.
A lockout-shortened 2011 offseason meant most of the Panthers wouldn’t meet then-new coach Rivera until training camp. When it came time for the rookies to get in the cold tub – somewhat a rite of passage for rookies across the NFL – Rivera bailed his quarterback out.
Newton was in the tub for about 20 seconds, most rookies went a minute or two, before Rivera blew the whistle and got Newton out of the tub.
“But that’s Coach Rivera’s quarterback. He took care of his quarterback,” Munnerlyn said. “So I always pick on him being a little baby about that. Coach Rivera let him off the hook.”
For better or worse, Rivera hitched his wagon to Newton when Rivera became an NFL head coach in 2011. The team would go how Newton went, and so would Rivera’s job status.
Rivera was a meticulous coach who, as a head coach for the first time after 12 years as an assistant and eight head-coaching interviews, saved his playbooks from his days as an NFL linebacker, had binders with color-coded tabs for potential practice schedules, and took notes on each player on the depth chart.
He, along with the entire Panthers organization, was entrusting Newton – a quarterback with one year of major college football experience – to lead the team.
“First of all, because of who he is. As I got to know him during that (draft) process, there was just something about him that I really believed that this is who he is,” Rivera said. “Secondly, I really believe showing that kind of confidence and faith in him, he would get it done. You have to show that kind of faith in your players.
“I’ve learned a lot of things in those three years about him and about this team, about me, more importantly, and there’s just something about it. And I think a lot of it was getting to know who he is.”
Monday is the first day teams can begin to renegotiate or extend the rookie contract of a player drafted in 2011, and teams also could exercise a fifth-year option on that player. The Panthers likely are to begin those discussions after the season, according to a source.
Newton’s in the third year of his four-year, $22 million contract, and he said he is “absolutely not” concerned about an extension at this time.
“That’s the last thing on my mind,” he said. “I’m not worried about contracts right now. I will not worry about any contracts. My main focus is trying to win more football games so we can make this season better.”
The realization that these Panthers are playoff-bound still hasn’t sunk in, Newton said, but just because the team has reached one of its goals doesn’t mean anything.
“It’s worth a hill of beans if you can’t win the ones that you have to,” Newton said. “Up until this point and moving forward, you have to win each and every one of them. We’re not celebrating prematurely that we’re in the playoffs. Yeah we’re excited just like every other team is excited about being in the playoffs but we’re not going to get too drunk off the high.”
He said he has believed since Day 1 the Panthers could be a contender in the playoffs and beyond, but he has been careful to make no public declarations of such all season. Newton said he looks “forward to having a 1-0 mindset each and every week” when asked about the possibility of the Panthers making it to February’s Super Bowl XLVIII.
Not all of his teammates are as subtle, though. Drayton Florence was trying to think of his best Newton story when he decided the best one has yet to come.
“I don’t have one for him yet,” Florence said. “I think I’ll be able to answer that better after Feb. 2.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9