Newton battling giant expectations

He is the prototype of a video game quarterback come to life.

That’s how Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams views being in the same backfield as Cam Newton.

"It’s the equivalent of playing ‘Madden,’" Williams recently said at Panthers training camp. "It was like having a running quarterback when (Michael) Vick was with Atlanta. Everybody would just go five wide (receivers) and run it with the quarterback.

"That’s just how potent he is, especially with the new (‘Madden 13’) that came out. It’s the same way."

The jaw-dropping skills Newton displayed during his record-setting rookie season are reflected in his lofty "Madden 13" player rating. He almost landed on the game’s cover photo, finishing as runner-up to Detroit wide receiver Calvin "Megatron" Johnson in fan voting.

Some Panthers fans took this as good news considering previous honorees were "jinxed" the next season with injuries or subpar performances. Newton, though, has more legitimate concerns ahead entering the 2012 campaign.

Like not getting unplugged by the opposition.

"People have had 16 games to watch him," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "They’re going to be more prepared and do some (different) things. We’re going to have to adjust."

Hurney’s concerns are legitimate.

Future success isn’t guaranteed with defensive coordinators having an entire offseason to analyze what Newton does and doesn’t do well. The 23-year-old Newton must continue to evolve or run the risk of joining the list of quarterbacks who wowed early in their careers only to never hits those heights again.

The Panthers made significant strides during Newton’s rookie campaign, improving from an NFL-worst 2-14 in 2010 to a competitive 6-10. Newton was the catalyst for the leap thanks to his skills as both a thrower and runner. Newton set an NFL rookie record with 4,051 passing yards and his 14 rushing touchdowns broke the all-time mark for quarterbacks. Making this even more impressive, Newton did it without the luxury of offseason workouts with the Panthers because of the NFL player lockout.

Such success has raised the 2012 preseason hype surrounding the Panthers. Second-year head coach Ron Rivera says that is a distraction Newton and his teammates must mitigate.

"That’s the hard thing," Rivera said. "We’ve talked about this. The expectations on the outside are going to be huge. We do have to manage it.

"To make the jump we did from two wins to six wins, what’s the next jump? Is it nine? 10? 11? Is it fair to assume we’re going to get in the playoffs and win in the playoffs? We have to make sure we understand what we need to do. We have to focus on us."

Newton did that during the offseason. One area of improvement he wanted to focus upon was becoming better at check-down passes to running backs and tight ends if his primary receiver wasn’t open downfield. To this end, Newton studied video of four other top quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.

"Offensive coordinators around this league are going to take shots," Newton said. "But it puts a coordinator at ease when you call a particular play downfield that if it’s not there, boom, I’m going to get it to the right player, check it down, and keep the chains and momentum going forward rather than pressing that beep button on the truck.

"You don’t want to go in reverse."

Newton acknowledges there were times last season where he "had to count the players on defense to see if they had 11 guys because it felt like 20." Newton also learned that "you’ve got defensive linemen running just as fast as you are."

Newton was still able to outrun most of them while gaining 706 yards at 5.6 yards an attempt. The best part of this for the Panthers: Newton consistently looked to throw first rather than turn upfield, which is a hard habit for some mobile quarterbacks to break.

"He has unbelievable athletic ability but he really cares about the passing game," Panthers center Ryan Kalil said. "He wants to be known as a passing quarterback. All the other stuff he does is really gravy. It’s an added part of our offense that teams have to study for. It’s hard to account for."

The free-agent addition of Mike Tolbert, who showcased his skills as a fullback and rusher in San Diego, to a running back corps that already features Williams and bruiser Jonathan Stewart provides another dimension. The possibility of Carolina running more option plays or even fielding a wishbone formation can’t be discounted.

Yet every time Newton carries the football, Panthers brass wince because of the increased possibility for injury. Hurney remembers one play last season where "after 20 yards I was yelling, ‘Get down! Get down!’ and then 40 yards later he’s in the end zone and I’m saying, ‘Way to go!’"

The key now is finding a happy medium.

"He’s always going to run and you just hold your breath," Hurney said. "But he has a knack for finding the open spot. Hopefully, he will learn to get down when he has to because you don’t want him out there being exposed."

Newton’s personal life was exposed as much as any other player in his draft class. A junior season in which he led Auburn to the 2010 national championship was tainted by payola allegations toward Newton and his father. Those claims were never proven, but more media knocks followed about Newton’s ability to learn a pro-style offense and whether he would become starstruck by the spoils that come with being a high draft pick.

Newton rose above this as well.

"He came in and went right to work," Kalil said. "It wasn’t to prove anybody wrong. It was just to become the best player he could be for this team and himself."

Nobody, though, is more critical of Newton than Newton

In the offseason, Newton described himself as a "bad teammate" to Yahoo! Sports because of his demonstrative sideline behavior following poor plays and his negative reaction after losses. Hurney defended a player he claims to have spent more time scouting than any other during his 24 years in the NFL.

"A lot was made about how Cam reacted to losses, that he got upset," Hurney said. "Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Every game you lose, you feel like you died so you like to see that in a player. His passion for winning and being successful was just confirmed to us."

Newton’s caution in offering too much praise about how good the Panthers can be in 2012 is a further reflection of the maturation process.

"I’m not going to say anything right now," he said. "I think we have unbelievable potential. But a wise man once told me potential has never won a game."

Nor has it landed a player on a Madden cover.

Alex Marvez and co-host Bill Polian interviewed Cam Newton, Ron Rivera, Marty Hurney, Ryan Kalil and DeAngelo Williams on SiriusXM NFL Radio.