No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton was fielding questions at Panthers teammate Steve Smith’s youth football camp Friday when a boy asked him to name the team he wished had drafted him.
After the Georgia native acknowledged he grew up a Falcons fan, Newton stressed he wanted to go to Carolina because it had the top pick. Then Newton turned to Smith and said, ”And I wanted to have someone great to throw to.”
Asked later if he was lobbying for the four-time Pro Bowl receiver to stay in Carolina, Newton smirked.
”Hopefully, he got the message,” Newton said.
It was hard to tell.
After saying for the first time Friday he briefly contemplated retirement because of his wife’s health scare, Smith said he’s back to focusing on football. Still, he continued to decline to say publicly if he wants to remain in Carolina or be traded to a contender.
”I’ve grown maybe a little bit of maturity. So what I’m going to do is keep saying it: It’s between me and my family,” Smith said. ”And when we decide what we’re going to do, whether people like it or not, as long as my family is happy, I hope they would understand.”
The 32-year-old Smith, who has two years remaining on his contract, has expressed a desire to play for a winner late in his career. The Panthers were an NFL-worst 2-14 last season, had the league’s worst offense and Smith had the worst numbers of his career in a season in which he was healthy.
”Obviously, skills are diminishing, losing a step. So we’ll see,” Smith said, mocking critics. ”We’ll see how many 24-year-olds can cover a 32-year-old, 4.3 runner, wide receiver who wasn’t supposed to be here anyway.”
For a while this offseason, Smith stopped worrying about proving doubters wrong because of ”one of the scariest thing I ever had to deal with as a husband and a father.”
When there were fears his wife, Angie, had lupus, a disease found mostly in women that affects the immune system, Smith considered ending his career.
”Retiring at that time was one of the things that we were thinking about, because I needed to be home with my wife,” Smith said. ”I needed to make sure I didn’t let her down.”
When tests ruled out lupus and his wife’s condition improved, Smith eyed football again. He attended one day of the Panthers’ player-organized workouts last week, catching passes from Newton for the first time.
Smith was impressed.
”His athleticism speaks for itself,” Smith said. ”You can see an athlete walk in the door. He doesn’t have to wear a sign or a jersey. You can tell if a guy can play or if he can’t.”
That’s praise the sometimes volatile Smith has been hesitant to give other QBs.
Smith, suspended twice in his career for punching teammates, was often visibly frustrated last season with rookie Jimmy Clausen. After learning following a December loss to Atlanta that Clausen had apologized to the defense for his play, Smith snapped that he should be apologizing to the people with him in the huddle.
It’s uncertain if Newton, Clausen or perhaps a veteran signed after the lockout ends will start in coach Ron Rivera’s first season in Carolina. Rivera has also said they’ll do what’s best for the team about Smith, not necessarily what Smith wants.
If Newton and Smith are paired, they’ll be one of the most scrutinized QB-receiver combinations in the NFL. Smith will be trying to rebound after subpar year, while Newton will be attempting to prove he can transform into an NFL franchise QB after one year as a national championship-winning star in a spread offense at Auburn.
Newton likely would be in better shape if he had Smith as a target. So right after Newton replied ”time will tell” to a kid’s bold question of whether he’ll be better than ex-Panthers QB Jake Delhomme, he made it clear he wants Smith to stick around.
”If that was the message,” Newton said, smiling, ”I’m just going to leave it at that.”