CHARLOTTE, N.C. – If not for Scam Newton there's no way Ron Rivera is doing this.
But that trouble is exactly what the Carolina Panthers' new coach likes about Cam Newton, who is going to start at quarterback despite just six weeks of preparation and one season as a starter in big-time college football. That trouble means Newton's been wounded, he's been through things, he's survived. It's why Rivera pushed the organization to take Newton with the first pick of last spring's NFL draft.
The way Rivera sees it, there needs to be a lot of surviving these next few weeks as he tries to rebuild the league's worst team. Why not do it with a man who's endured more criticism than anyone?
"How many guys do you think could handle the scrutiny that he had for the last three years and not have crumbled or would have failed at some point?" Rivera asks as he walks down a path from the Panthers' practice fields. "People say 'Oh he never faced adversity.' I don't know about that. He's been through a lot of adversity the last three years."
And if Rivera and his coaches can channel that promise, Newton's got a chance to build a new life as an NFL superstar and make people forget about the scandals – the stolen laptop at Florida, the three schools in four years and the cloud of allegations that his father Cecil tried to sell him to the highest-bidding college – that were all bundled into a single name: Scam Newton.
But to get there they'll have to survive 2011 first. And what Rivera is doing is nearly unprecedented – crazy really – throwing the team into the hands of a quarterback who at this time last year was but a blip on the sports radar. Yet Rivera is betting none of this will faze Newton.
"You look for that guy who, when adversity hits, can rise above and help the other guys rise too," he says.
And if they're going to take losses this fall, as Rivera fully expects they could, he'd rather take them with a leader who has been attacked before and endured.
It's a thought that makes Newton stop as he makes his way toward the Panthers' locker rooms after a recent practice. Slowly, he nods.
"The road that I've got to this point is what made the person I really am now," he says. "If I just went to school without any hindrance, without any traps in my way, I don't think I would have learned the lessons I have learned. I thank God I've been in so many situations to know when a particular situation comes up, whatever it is; I will know how to handle it. Good and bad."
Rivera believes this so much that the decision to start Newton came during the lockout, before Newton ever pulled on a silver Panthers helmet and had a day of coaching. Rivera was determined to give Jimmy Clausen(notes) a fair chance to start, but unless Clausen did something remarkable or Newton imploded, Newton was going to start.
"I didn't draft him to save us," Rivera says. "I drafted him to lead us. We drafted him to be a part of what we build here."
It took time for Rivera to fall in love with Newton, but when he did his feelings came fast. The question of whether to draft Newton came quickly after he took the job last winter. And Rivera's staff and scouting department plowed though hours of video tape and made dozens of phone calls. When it came time for Newton's pro day at Auburn, Rivera showed up a day early, walked into the stadium, sat high in the stands and watched Newton go through a rehearsal of what he was going to do the next morning.
He was amazed by the way Newton's teammates gravitated toward him during those moments they weren't running. This wasn't the common quarterback-teammate distance and he saw the signs: Newton's personality was "infectious" and he wouldn't come into the pros with the aloofness of a superstar.
But it was two days later, on the morning after the pro day, that Rivera first found himself leaning toward pushing for Newton to be the team's pick. He took the quarterback to breakfast and asked everything he could think of about every controversial moment in Newton's life: the laptop, the dismissal from Florida, the allegations of a bidding war. Newton answered them all.
"No question was off limits," Rivera says. "He answered every question I asked. The one thing that impressed me the most though was asking him about Florida. He explained, 'I made a big mistake, I learned from that mistake and from that point on I try to do things the right way.' "
Still as the draft grew near and Rivera was all but certain Newton was the right quarterback to be the new face of the franchise, the coach wanted to be sure. And so one final meeting was set up. Rivera flew to Atlanta where the Newtons live and took the family to breakfast. They went to a small place, supposedly famous in local circles but whose name now escapes Rivera, and they all just talked. Newton brought his younger brother, his parents and grandmother.
Rivera sat back and watched the man he was about to make the top pick in the draft talk with his family. There was something real, Rivera decided, something genuine despite all the trouble. Any lingering doubts dissolved at that breakfast table.
"Things came up and we talked about everything," Rivera says. "This is our No. 1 choice, how's that going to affect everything? How's it going to affect the family? I just wanted to deal with the expectations of what the family wanted to be. They seemed to understand and their whole thing was to be supportive to him."
Then came the moment Rivera was sold for good. Cecil Newton, the one who has been accused of shopping his son across half the Southeastern Conference, turned to Rivera and said:
"Cam doesn't have to be in front of everybody. He likes to be a part of a team."
A couple of breakfasts mean nothing once the practices start. And Rivera was curious to know how fast Newton would take to a new playbook. The Panthers' coaches had talked to Newton's previous coaches both at Blinn (Texas) College and at Auburn, asking how best he learned. They said Newton needed to be on the field as much as possible, working the possibilities with a ball in his hand. Even quarterback meetings needed to be interactive. The last thing, they said, was to have him sitting in a lecture for two hours.
The Panthers have thrown a ton at Newton. Learning to trust the offensive system has been hard for him. This is always a challenge for young quarterbacks who operated with more freedom in college, which was especially true for Newton who could take off running whenever he needed at Auburn.
"It's more reacting here," Newton says. "When you get in any type of situation in the game you can't think about the game plan you were given. You can't think, 'There's a 20 percent chance this guy can come on this blitz,' or 'On third down they have shown they do this.' When it's, 'Hut,' it's all about reacting. You either know it or you don't. And if you don't, you lose."
If Rivera has a frustration with Newton it's that the quarterback has not been a bigger personality. One day, as Newton looked especially frustrated, Rivera pulled the quarterback aside and said, "You can't be hard on yourself."
Newton, he says, looked at him and said: "Yes, Coach, but you know why? Because in that huddle are a group of guys that are Pro Bowl players and guys who have been to a Super Bowl. I want to make those guys proud."
Completing 42 percent of his passes with just one touchdown in four preseason games probably isn't going to make anyone proud. It speaks even more to the risk of starting him now rather than waiting several weeks or even a season to work his way into a starting position. Still, no one seems bothered yet, maybe because everything is new and everyone is learning at once.
"He's behind the 8 ball being the face of the franchise, and has also become the starting quarterback, but I'm impressed at how he's handled it," says tight end Ben Hartsock(notes), who is in his first year with the Panthers himself.
In a few days the most controversial football player of the last year will pull on his helmet and step onto the field for the first game of what the Panthers have bet heavily will be a bright, new era. And they are expecting Newton will act as oblivious to the noise around him as he did since the start of last college football season.
"I am fazed by things that happen in my life," Newton says. "Everybody knows some things, some controversial things that happened to me last year, and it affected me. Did I show it to people? Some people I showed it to, some people I didn't. That's the funny thing about life. The human element takes over at some point. You just 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 got to keep going. It depends on one person how long he stays at that particular point in his life."
Ron Rivera expects that will be soon and that as things fall apart in the first weeks, as they undoubtedly will, that Can Newton will stay as he is now – head thrown back, chest out, mouth closed, letting the disaster roll off him, just as he did back when he was Scam Newton.
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- Ron Rivera