Tom Sorensen

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton about to be paid like elite player he will be

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) has, and will, improve as a passer, but his ability to run is what sets him apart.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) has, and will, improve as a passer, but his ability to run is what sets him apart. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Carolina Panthers have long said that Cam Newton is their franchise quarterback. They’re about to prove it.

They’ll pay Newton at least $20 million a season, perhaps closer to $25 million. That’s elite quarterback money. Newton has had elite moments. At 26, he has yet to have an elite season.

But he will.

When you find your quarterback, you take care of him. You hire a good offensive line to protect him (maybe this season), and you find receivers who can get open and will catch the ball when they do.

And you pay him.

I know that many of you disagree. Newton is the most polarizing athlete in Charlotte history. There are day planners in Charlotte that look like this. Tuesday: Manufacture reasons to dislike Cam. Wednesday: See Tuesday.

I wrote a column the day players cleaned out their lockers after the 2014 season ended that said, simply, the Panthers had to retain Newton. The response was vitriolic, and occasionally racist. An example: “Oh, yeah, a white sportswriter in love with a black athlete, you must be a liberal.” And there I was thinking it was 2014.

But on Carolina’s practice field last week only defensive backs appeared polarized. On the third day of Organized Team Activities, Newton moved as if he was paid by the yard. He’d hit Corey Brown with a deep pass, then run down the field to congratulate him. When he wasn’t leading the offense, he was leading cheers. This wasn’t a boring practice on a hot day. This was an opportunity.

Ted Ginn Jr., the receiver who played for Carolina two seasons ago, played for Arizona last season and will play for the Panthers again this season, talked after practice last week about Newton.

Said Ginn: “He’s a leader, and as the quarterback, it starts with him. So for him to do that (get excited and involve teammates), why not us? It’s about feeding off the next one, and luckily he’s our big dog, so we get to feed off the best man.”

Maybe Ginn just wants to be fed passes. But this is his ninth season, and he knows who leads. Players always know.

During Carolina’s six-game losing streak last season Newton, looked like a speed bag dangling from a gym wall. The offensive line went through a terrible streak, and Newton was pummeled.

Yet Newton never flashed one of those “The World Is Against Me” sneers that Peyton and Eli Manning and Billy Idol made famous.

Newton never invoked his injured ankle, ribs or back. He did complain – about his own work. When a man accepts blame, even when blame might not be merited, he wins respect.

Now he has to win games. In four seasons Newton is 30-31-1, and in the playoffs he is 1-2. The playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks in January was a microcosm of all that he can and can’t do. He made enormous mistakes that resulted in turnovers and eliminated any chance the underdog Panthers had to win. Yet he moved the ball well against a tough and talented defense. He threw for two touchdowns and 246 yards.

Newton’s contract will be predicated not on what he has done but on what the Panthers believe he will do. When injuries forced him to stay in the pocket last season he patiently found secondary receivers. As he gets older, he’ll do more of that. Still, he’ll always run. He looked as if he was putting on moves last week when he hustled down the field last week to celebrate with Brown.

Perhaps Newton is criticized because he’s as big as a tight end and as fast as a wide receiver and has a big arm and quick feet and – and why isn’t he elite already?

What’s the rush? The season doesn’t start until September.

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