SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Roman Harper thought he knew what Cam Newton was all about while playing in New Orleans.
Like others who have judged Newton solely from a distance, Harper thought wrong.
The veteran safety’s initial interactions with Newton took place only when the Saints faced NFC South-rival Carolina twice each season. This was during the three-year stretch (2011-13) when Newton began enjoying a meteoric rise as one of the NFL’s most successful, popular and heavily marketed youngsters.
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But the spectacular plays Newton made as quarterback of the Panthers were sometimes overshadowed by media reports of immaturity behind the scenes. Newton entered the NFL already surrounded by character questions stemming from off-field issues in college as well as a regrettable Sports Illustrated pre-draft quote stating he views himself as an “entertainer and icon” as much as a football player.
Newton’s body language and sideline demeanor when the Panthers were losing generated additional scrutiny because his outward confidence during adversity — a trait elite quarterbacks exude — seemed to wane at times. Even his signature “Superman” touchdown celebration continues to strike some outsiders and traditionalists as an attention-drawing, me-first gesture unbecoming of the position.
Harper’s notions of how a quarterback should approach the game were shaped largely from having spent the previous eight years playing alongside the more buttoned-down Drew Brees. Five months after Harper signed with the Panthers, his views of Newton are now radically different.
“I’ve really changed my whole opinion on this guy,” Harper said earlier this week. “Not that it was bad before, but now it’s so much more in a positive manner.”
Harper wasn’t the only one to speak glowingly of Newton during my recent visit to Panthers training camp at Wofford College. Unsolicited support from teammates and club employees paint a picture of someone far more selfless than selfish.
“People see what they see on TV, but they don’t see what happens in the huddle,” left tackle Byron Bell said. “Even when a bad play goes on, he’s vocal. He lets us know, ‘I got y’all. That’s on me.’ Even though it might have been my fault, he’ll take full responsibility.
“That’s the type of guy he is. He bounces back up. That’s why we won a lot of games last year. The guy is just a flat-out leader.”
Albeit in a different fashion than what Harper is accustomed to from Brees.
“He does it in a totally different way,” Harper said. “He’s a young guy. He’s a cut-up in the locker room. He’s singing. He’s rapping. He’s keeping things loose. You really appreciate that because he’s the main guy, but he’s also your leader.
“You start to gravitate to that personality. I like that personality. I like having fun while I’m out here. It’s not just always work. You’ve got to be able to have fun. He has it.”
There are other reasons for Newton’s emergence as standard bearer for the franchise. He is more mature at age 25 than when he entered the NFL after just one whirlwind national championship season as a Division I starter at Auburn. The path for Newton to assume the leadership mantle on offense was further paved when two Panthers mainstays — wideout Steve Smith (released) and left tackle Jordan Gross (retired) — left during the offseason.
And most important, Newton is a winner. The Panthers have improved each of the past three seasons with Newton earning his second career Pro Bowl honor last year after leading Carolina to a 12-4 record and first division title since 2008.
“A guy like him who comes out of college surrounded by so many expectations and attention put on him personally and what he represents on and off the field as a player and person, I think there’s always going to be extra criticism and people always looking to see a guy like him fall,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said.
“He’s handled that as good as you can expect. His first three years in the league are as good as anybody has gotten off to at the quarterback position. He’s just going to continue to be himself. The guys on the team know what kind of character he has and leader he is. We don’t get too wrapped up with what everyone else’s opinions are.”
Neither does Newton. Though he appreciates the sentiment, Newton would prefer stories like the one that Bell shared remain private — just like his visits with ill children and other charity initiatives.
“As long as my 10 guys out there with me know, that’s all that matters,” Newton said. “All I care is they know at the end of the day when I walk in the huddle that everything is going to be alright. They know, ‘We got Cam. We’re good.’
“If they’ve got that belief in me, I’m going to be great.”
Newton has looked stellar passing the football in training camp, but the Panthers haven’t let him scramble yet or make any moves that could cause a setback following offseason ankle surgery.
“I’m still kind of reluctant with mobility,” said Newton, who isn’t expected to play in Friday night’s preseason opener against Buffalo. “One thing that keeps encouraging me: Each and every day I do something that I couldn’t do a week ago. It’s like at first I was able to take one step and then another and then I’d start limping. Today, I was able to take a couple more steps and twist and do this and that and be like, ‘Man, my ankle feels good.’
“As long as I’m ready to go by Week 1 and I’m saying, ‘Coach, let me go. Don’t hold back nothing.’ ”
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera believes the ankle surgery might actually be “the best thing” for Newton in the long run as he continues evolving into more of a passer than runner. Newton’s carries have declined in each of his first three seasons.
“He doesn’t run out of the pocket right now because he really can’t,” Rivera said. “He’s going through his progressions. If you really watch it in terms of him reading the coverages and going from one receiver to the next, these things are really interesting to watch in terms of his development.”
Newton will have more placed on his shoulders this season than at any previous point in Carolina. The Panthers will field an entirely new crop of receiving targets besides Olsen and have a revamped offensive line with starter changes at three of five positions, including both tackle spots.
Naysayers believe the offensive alterations will cause the Panthers to take a step back in 2014. Newton is looking to prove them wrong — again — and is stressing consistency and attention to detail from his teammates in the preseason as the key to doing so.
“We not only owe it to the fans. We owe it to ourselves,” he said. “This has been a hard drawn-out process going back to the days when I was a rookie.
“I’m looking at this team evolve into a contender. For a long time, we were a pretender.”
Nobody should say the same about Newton anymore.
All Panthers interviews were conducted by Alex Marvez and co-host Gil Brandt on SiriusXM NFL Radio