NFL

Newton confounds critics again

Auburn QB Cam Newton was selected No. 1 overall by the Carolina Panthers.
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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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When Cam Newton, in just his 12th start as a Division I-A quarterback, walked into Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium for last November’s Iron Bowl, the building’s PA system blared the Steve Miller Band’s "Take the Money and Run," students showered him with monopoly money from the stands, and three state troopers flanked him.

Hostile environment? You bet.

His team down 24-0 in the second quarter, things appeared to have been too big for the kid with just one real year of major-college football experience under his belt.

But Newton silenced his critics, and with an undefeated season and a BCS national championship on the line, led his Auburn Tigers to the largest comeback in school history and a monumental 28-27 victory. Six weeks later they became national champions.

Newton had more than his fair share of critics in the months leading up to Thursday’s NFL draft, too. They said he didn’t have the smarts to learn an NFL offense. They said he was a problem child with too many off-the-field concerns. They said he didn’t love the game. They called him “disingenuous” and accused him of having a “fake smile."

But Newton, just a year and a half removed from being the starting quarterback at tiny Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, is now the franchise quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.

His critics be damned.

“I’m ready to get this show on the road right now,” Newton said emphatically on Thursday, just minutes after being selected first overall by the NFL’s worst team in 2010. Flashing that now almost trademark smile and sporting a vibrant pink tie, Newton addressed the media with the look and sound of a man on a mission.

“I’ve learned a lot from this process. I’ve learned that you guys in the media have a job to do in critiquing each athlete to his core, but at the same time, I have embraced this process and understand that everything is under the watchful eye right now. Nothing’s going to change. I’m going to progress to be great.”

And greatness is what will be expected from Newton in Carolina right from the start. With the recent success of first-round quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, Josh Freeman and Sam Bradford, the bar has been raised for rookie gunslingers. No longer can teams (and their GMs and coaches) wait for years for a first-round quarterback to develop.

And none of those other first-round quarterbacks came close to facing the skepticism that Newton, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound physical freak who’s done nothing but win, faces in 2011.

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“I’m my biggest critic," he said. "I try to restrain myself from listening to how people critique me, but it happens. In the end of the day, I can’t go to sleep knowing that I didn’t do better on that particular day.”

When his name was announced prior to the draft, the Radio City Music Hall crowd showered him with boos. Boos that sounded no different than the ones he faced that afternoon in front of 101,821 crazed fans in Tuscaloosa.

But he smiled. And when reporters hinted at his shortcomings and all those doubts surrounding him — both as a player and as a young man — he smiled some more.

“I’m relieved. I apologize, but you have no idea how I feel right now," he said. "What I really want to do, I can’t do. I want to scream.”

Newton’s name has been muddied in headlines and on TV and talk radio since 2008, when he was arrested in connection with a laptop computer that had been stolen from another student and suspended from the team during his sophomore season at Florida.

A year later the NCAA began looking into allegations that his father asked for cash for his son to sign with Mississippi State while he starred at Blinn College, and a source told FOXSports.com that Newton had three instances of academic cheating while attending Florida and faced potential expulsion from the university.

Then, in the weeks leading up to the draft, with all eyes on him, Newton told Peter King of Sports Illustrated, "I see myself not only as a football player, but as an entertainer and icon.”

When pressed on the absurdity of such a comment, Newton responded, "I’m aware of the statement. I don't want to sound arrogant but I did something in one year people couldn't do in their whole collegiate careers."

And he’s right. He did. No one dominated the SEC like Newton did in 2010. He’s also the first player to win the national title and the Heisman and become the first pick in the draft since Leon Hart, a two-way lineman out of Notre Dame, did it in 1950.

Though some may say Newton's confidence borders on cockiness, he’s really not all that concerned about how others perceive him. All that matters are the Panthers. And Coach Ron Rivera and GM Marty Hurney obviously thought highly enough of Newton to possibly stake their careers on his right arm.

As for his critics? Does Newton have any message for them?

“I really don’t. They have a job to do and I have a job to do, as well," he said. "And I understand that today is not the day that everyone’s going to just stop and say, ‘He’s the No. 1 pick and now let’s leave him alone.’ More than anything, the flood gates have opened.”

In truth, those flood gates have been opened since the laptop incident in Gainesville. They got wider with the Mississippi State allegations and they were ripped right open that day in Tuscaloosa.

Cam Newton’s been up against the wall before. He’s had his doubters every step of the way on his journey to the NFL. And he’s always come out on top.

When asked if he had a message for Carolina fans, Newton flashed that smile and shook his head, “I can’t wait.”

Neither can anyone else. His critics, included.

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