From the start we should have seen he wouldn't fail. Cam Newton had too much going for him: his throws were too good, his running elusive and the will to be great burned brighter than most. Ron Rivera, the Carolina Panthers' new coach, understood. He slipped into Auburn's football stadium on the afternoon before Newton's pro day and watched the quarterback run through all of the next day's drills, repeating them until perfect and then noticed the other players gathered around him in genuine affection. That's when he knew.
Perhaps this was where Rivera realized the Panthers would take Newton with the first pick in the NFL draft and that he would start Newton despite the lockout that took the summer and the just one season as a starter on a major college football team that made him seem so unready for the NFL. There would be other moments of discovery: a private breakfast, a meeting with the family and everything kept pointing to one thing.
"I didn't draft him to save us, I drafted him to come lead us," Rivera said just before the start of the season.
But in the end Newton might just save them after all. On Sunday he will throw for his 4,000th yard. It will make this, statistically, the best season a rookie quarterback has ever had. The marvel of this will be lost because the Panthers are rebuilding and there have been brilliant seasons from older, more polished passers like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady – men who have won championships.
[ Related: NFL playoff picture, scenarios ]
And yet this week the talk is about race because of something Newton said in a magazine interview, swiping away the stigma dangled over his name simply over other men's failures. Because no matter how good he was in college, no matter how much he impressed in interviews with teams and tried desperately to prove he was a leader, there was always a comparison to JaMarcus Russell. Like Newton, Russell was a one-year star in the SEC with great physical promise. Like Newton, Russell was destined to be the first overall pick. And like Newton, Russell was African-American. And so the link was made.
Really they were nothing alike. Russell clearly didn't love football. He didn't grasp what it took to be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, and showed little interest in trying to be great. He didn't want to be a leader and it showed in the way he ballooned over 300 pounds and slumped out of the league as a punch line to an expensive joke.
"I blame JaMarcus Russell and to some degree, Vince Young," Newton said in an ESPN The Magazine interview. "If you have the opportunity to make that kind of money doing something you love to do, why would you screw it up? I'm trying to be a trail blazer. If Baylor's Robert Griffin decides to come out I want people to say, 'He can be the next Cam Newton not he can be the next JaMarcus Russell.' "
[ Video: Locks to win for Week 17 ]
Time will tell how much of a trail blazer Newton becomes. But there are so many signs that say he can be great. Rivera could see some of them back in September, when a week before the season's start, he talked of a player who had already endured more scrutiny than almost anyone who had entered the draft in the decades before. Who else had been a front-page-top-of-the-newscast debate the way Newton was through his season at Auburn with the allegations his father auctioned him around the SEC, the undefeated season and the daily debate over his worthiness to be the No. 1 pick? Rivera figured Newton would struggle on the field given the small time to prepare but he never doubted his new quarterback's strength to handle the bad times.
Only there weren't that many. Sure the Panthers lost, but the Panthers were supposed to lose. They were the worst team in the league last season and nobody turns themselves around that fast. What surprised the NFL was how Newton kept Carolina close, pulling it to a few victories and selling a hope no one could have imagined.
On that same September day when Rivera said he believed in his new quarterback, Newton stood behind the team's stadium, not far from a set of railroad tracks. A freight train thundered by and for a moment he watched it and smiled faintly.
"Everybody knows some things, some controversial things that happened to me last year and it affected me," he said. "Did I show it to people? Some people I showed it to, some people I didn't. For me I did feel it. That's the funny thing about life: the human elements take over at some point. You just got to work with what you got. If people throw you a roadblock it can be a speed bump or a roadblock but sooner or later you've got to keep going. It depends on that person on how long he stays at that particular point in his life."
JaMarcus Russell? Vince Young? Akili Smith? Ryan Leaf? The comparisons to any quarterback who shot to the top of the draft without much experience are ridiculous. Cam Newton was different than all of them. The signs were there. This season shouldn't have been a surprise.
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Tracy McGrady to Dwight Howard: Trade to Nets might not be a good idea
• Forde: Notre Dame aims to keep Big Ten, Pac-12 rivalries | Leagues 'expand'
• UFC reinstates a penitent Miguel Torres after joke about rape
• Dan Wetzel's most memorable columns of 2011
- Ron Rivera