SPARTANBURG, S.C. – When Cam Newton threw for 422 yards in his first NFL regular-season game last Sept. 11, displaying the nonchalant mastery of Kelly Slater shooting through an expansive tube at Pipeline, it was hard to find anyone associated with pro football who wasn't stunned.
Given the challenges Newton faced upon entering the league as the first overall draft pick during a disruptive labor war, no one had expected him to be so good, so soon. He'd had only one year of major college football experience, in a relatively unsophisticated offense. The lockout had wiped out the entire 2011 offseason, keeping him away from the Carolina Panthers' practice field until the first day of training camp. And he was fast-tracked into the lineup as the face of a franchise that was beaten down and demoralized.
And yet Newton, against all logic, looked completely comfortable in his stellar debut against the Arizona Cardinals. Even his coaches and teammates were shocked.
"Trust me," says Ryan Kalil, Carolina's All-Pro center, "we all were."
Well, almost all of the Panthers. As the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback built on his opening-day brilliance, throwing for 432 yards and running for another 53 against the Green Bay Packers in Week 2 and sustaining his excellence throughout a record-setting, 4,000-yard-plus rookie campaign, one Carolina player refused to get caught up in the improbability of it all: Cam Newton, who brushed off his own hype like a blitzing safety.
In fact, the supremely confident Heisman Trophy winner who led Auburn to the 2010 national championship took little satisfaction in a season so successful that it defied prevailing football logic and helped accelerate a recent trend.
As we enter an era in which rookie quarterbacks are being thrust into action immediately, with accompanying expectations of instantaneous proficiency, Newton's 2011 campaign had a seismic impact: Five teams are set to trot out newcomers as their Week 1 starters Sunday, by far the most of the modern era.
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"Yes, I do believe there's a Cam Newton Effect," says St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead, who spent the previous 13 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. "What he did last year was amazing, and it revitalized the confidence of just about every single player on that team. They became a tough opponent, especially down the stretch, and he was the biggest reason."
Yet, as uplifting as his 35-touchdown (21 passing, 14 rushing) season was, the NFL's offensive rookie of the year was also the Panthers' biggest Debbie Downer. At times, Newton seemed downright miserable, his on- field feats offset by his sulky sideline demeanor: Alone at the end of the bench, towel covering his head, spirits sunk like the Andrea Doria.
Ask Newton if anything surprised him during his first season, and he gets grumpy all over again. "The losing," he answered stoically as he walked off the Wofford College practice field at the conclusion of the team's training camp last month. "It was a culture shock, not having extended games at the end of the season, having it just end. I'm not sure how my season was [from an individual standpoint]; that's for other people to decide and let me know. But I know 6-10 is unacceptable – that's what I do know."
Never mind that the Panthers had been a league-worst 2-14 the season before Newton's arrival, or that they were refreshingly competitive in 2011, with six of their 10 defeats coming by eight points or fewer. To Newton, a loss is a loss, and it reflects poorly on a quarterback, whatever the extenuating circumstances.
He insists he'll do his best to conceal his dismay in his second season, but that seems to be more of a concession to his critics than an epiphany about the destructive power of such emotions.
"I've heard [that I should] control my body language," Newton says. "That's one thing I do have to change. But other than that, the mentality will always be the same. There's no faking about me."
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Newton's demeanor became an issue last November, when Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler (among others) criticized him for being isolated on the sideline when things were going poorly. In fairness, journalists and fans weren't the only ones posing Phil Dunphy-style Why the face? questions to the quarterback.
In December, Newton revealed that Kalil and tackle Jordan Gross had talked to him about keeping his emotions in check before a 28-13 victory over the Houston Texans. Over the offseason he told Y! Sports' Jason Cole that he was a "bad teammate" who had demonstrated immaturity by "pouting and moping" on the sideline.
Predictably, no one inside the Panthers' organization is openly harping on this issue. It falls under the realm of high-class problems: The most important player on the team is undone when his team falls short of its collective goal. It's like the classic answer to the job-interview question in which a candidate is asked to detail his flaws: If anything, I'm too much of a perfectionist, and I'm my own worst critic, because my standards are so high.
"That's a good problem to have," Panthers coach Ron Rivera says. "If that's the worst thing that we have to worry about – our quarterback cares too much – we've got it pretty good.
"Everything he's ever done, he's won at, and the thing he's got to understand in our situation is he's building to that success. We would love to be able to emulate teams like New England, Green Bay and the Giants, where every year people expect us to win. Right now, we're trying to build something."
And make no mistake: The Panthers are building around Newton's unique talents, an uncanny package of arm strength and athleticism and the size, a la the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, to shed would-be tacklers and extend plays in the pocket.
"He is a tough man to take down," says New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, another 2011 rookie, who faced Newton twice last season. "I found out when I tried to sack him. I gave him like a super shove, and he just kind of bounced off me and ran."
This is not to say that Newton, who threw for 4,051 yards and ran for another 706, is perceived as a player who simply relies on his freakish physical gifts. When teammates talk about Newton's leadership, they focus on his drive and work ethic, qualities which won over the locker room last summer in the aftermath of the lockout.
"Cam's transition was easy because of his desire to want to play football," says Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith, whose return to the Panthers after having asked owner Jerry Richardson to trade him was facilitated partly by Newton's conspicuous lobbying effort. "When you have a guy who wants to have as big of an impact as he had in college – he wants to have an even bigger impact in the NFL – I don't really find it that hard to work with someone who has that drive. I think it's pretty obvious."
Panthers players noticed the way Newton dove into offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's complex playbook, which the quarterback had studied intently during the lockout. While Chudzinski deserves a great deal of credit for adapting his scheme to play to Newton's strengths, it wasn't as though the coach ran a remedial version of his system to accommodate the raw rookie under center.
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"When he got here they showed him this huge, thick playbook and said, 'This is the style of offense we're gonna run here,' and he said, 'Great,' " Kalil recalls. "He was very adamant about making sure they didn't water it down for him. He said, 'Whatever you need me to do, that's what I'll do.' And it was new to all of us. We all kind of had that learning curve. It was tough.
"As the year went on, he really matured and took control of that offense, which was tremendous. And this year we're moving on again. We call Rob Chudzinski 'the Mad Scientist' because the guy's in the building all day long, every day, and I've never seen a coach that spends more time than him constantly evolving this thing. And Cam is working harder than ever."
Says Newton of his insistence that Chudzinski not simplify the offense: "Honestly, I really couldn't ask that. This offense was great before me, and this offense will be great after me. It's a system, and execution is the key for it to be great."
If you're starting to get the sense that Newton is a tad exacting when evaluating his own efforts, you are not mistaken.
"It's just accountability," Newton says. "You call it what you want to call it. It's downgraded by some people, and it's accepted by a lot more people. If you're a competitor, you won't think twice about your expectations for yourself."
In other words, no one can be harder on Newton than Newton is on himself. "Absolutely," he says. "Absolutely. I think that's in my nature. It's hereditary to a degree. I sit down and watch games with my brother and my father, and we're all critiquing every single play. How could I have made it better? How could I have gotten myself out of a jam?"
Best of all, from the Panthers' perspective, is that Newton's push for perfection is governed by a yearning for organizational success, rather than focused on individual glory.
"The thing I like about Cam though is that even though he's now in the spotlight and he's kind of put the Panthers on the map and become a superstar, he cares very much about his position on his team and helping his team win," says Kalil, who took out a full-page ad this offseason predicting the Panthers would win Super Bowl XLVII. "And that's something you saw last year. He got a lot of criticism for his demeanor and how he took a lot of those losses, and that says something a lot about him – that it's not the accolades, that the records he was able to break don't mean anything to him unless he can win football games.'
"There are times you wanted him to [be less emotional], but you don't ever want to tell somebody, 'Hey, that'll happen, get used to it,' because that's not the right attitude. You've just got to tell him, 'Look, this is the NFL, it's gonna be a battle, it's hard, every single game is gonna be a championship-type football game.'
"I think as the season went on, he did a lot better with how he carried himself. But in the same regard I think it came off in a positive way to a lot of guys. Although the media kind of crucified him for it and people outside saw it as a negative, I think guys really responded to it in a positive way because to us it sent a signal that this guy really cares about winning football games – not for himself, for this football team. It means something to him. And I think that kind of attitude is something that's inspiring, it's contagious."
For that reason, all the talk about an impending attitude adjustment for the young quarterback has at least one Carolina player concerned.
"He wants to win, and I respect that," veteran halfback Jonathan Stewart says. "But this is the NFL, and you're not gonna win every game. You need to learn to cope with that, to be there for your teammates, to stay responsive.
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"For all the talk about how he handled that last year, I guess he's changing. But I hope he doesn't change too much. I want him to be mad. In my mind, that's how he handles things. That's who he is. That's how he got here. He shouldn't lose that."
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This is one quarterback who, when all is said and done, wants to be remembered as much more than a transcendent rookie who helped start a trend.
"If I were to tell a person my goals," he says, "it might blow their mind – so I'd rather keep it to myself. But my expectations for myself will never be exceeded by someone else."
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