Where Cam Newton leads, Panthers are happy to follow
FOX Sports senior NFL writer Alex Marvez's training camp tour made its final stop in Spartanburg, S.C. Here are some of the things he learned and observed while visiting Panthers camp with SiriusXM NFL Radio co-host Gil Brandt. Also, check out his previous camp stories below.
Cam Newton isn’t your daddy’s quarterback — and the Carolina Panthers have no problem with that.
The latest reminder was a recent on-field tussle between Newton and cornerback Josh Norman. Traditional QBs rarely if ever scrap with teammates. There’s too great a risk of injury as well as the time-honored belief that such a stately position is above fisticuffs.
Yet there was Newton, exchanging blows with Norman after the latter returned an interception for a touchdown during practice at Wofford College.
Never mind that Newton and Norman quickly buried the hatchet after weeks of trash-talking between the two boiled over. The incident provided fodder for the sizeable anti-Newton faction that still believes he lacks the character and maturity to ever become a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
As for the Panthers, they know better.
“Who players are today has changed,” said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who was a linebacker with the Chicago Bears from 1984 to 1992. “Cam has a different style. He’s a different breed of athlete. It does work here.
“The thing I thought that a lot of our guys took away from it is that he’s a quarterback, but he’s going to fight for us when he gets on the field.”
When it comes to leadership, there are outside perceptions about Newton and then there is reality.
Early in his NFL career, Newton was bashed for his sideline demeanor when things were going rough. He was even dressed down by ex-teammate Steve Smith during one 2012 game for being too mopey.
That is no longer an issue. But entering his fifth NFL season at age 26, Newton still doesn’t have the air of seniority around him like other young QBs such as Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck.
He doesn’t dress the part in postgame news conferences. The nature of his “Superman” end-zone celebrations is more becoming of a wide receiver than a quarterback.
This could be a problem on other teams with a different locker-room makeup or less flexible team management. It isn’t in Carolina, where Newton was re-signed in the offseason to a six-year, $118.4 million contract that includes $60 million guaranteed.
“He likes to have fun,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “Sometimes, he’s like a little kid, but in a good way. I think a lot of people from the outside want their quarterbacks to be in a box. He’s not going to be that guy. That’s not a negative or bad thing. He’s his own special guy.
“He’s had tremendous success everywhere he’s been. That’s because of the guy and athlete he is and what he’s able to do both physically and mentally. Just because he doesn’t look and act and say the things every other quarterback does or what everyone thinks he should say he gets unfair criticism at times.”
Any remaining doubts about Newton’s internal standing as a leader were answered in 2014. Newton was a mess physically because of offseason ankle surgery, an in-season car accident and the hits that come with 103 rushing attempts and 38 sacks allowed by a porous offensive line. Yet Newton never once complained about the beating he took, which resonated with his teammates.
That respect has carried over into the 2015 season, when the Panthers will try to win the NFC South title for an unprecedented third straight season.
“This is probably the best locker room I’ve been around since I’ve been in the league,” Newton said. “Guys are caring for each other. They’re not necessarily worried about the Pro Bowl. They’re worried about the Super Bowl.
“If you’ve got guys who are willing to sell out more for each other rather than themselves, that’s a scary (thing).”
For the opposition, so is Newton’s on-going development as a passer.
Rivera said he believes a now-healthy Newton is “at the precipice of going to the next level, that upper echelon of quarterbacks.”
“He had a very good minicamp, and then he organized a two-week camp that the receivers and (running) backs went to,” Rivera said. “He came back and was energized. He and I talked about it the other day. I asked how it was and he said, ‘Coach, it was great. We hung out, bonded and did the things that needed to be done.
“I kept thinking, ‘That’s a huge step in becoming a leader and being mature.’ There are a lot of good things that have happened for him. I think he’s really ready to take that next step.”
It’s now time for the Panthers to do the same and advance into an NFC Championship game after being eliminated in the second round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons.
“This franchise is only ascending,” Newton said. “The things to come are great, but we have to go get it. Nothing is promised. It has to start with giving ourselves a chance.
“The talent that’s in that locker room has been giving us the opportunity to speak highly of potential. But we know potential has never won any games.”
The same usually is the case for quarterbacks when teammates don’t have their back. That’s something Newton doesn’t have to worry about.
“The bottom line is he has respect guys on the team,” Olsen said. “We all love him and enjoy playing for him. That’s all there really is to say.”
Self-policing: Newton isn’t the only Panthers player who has grown up.
Rivera said the most positive thing to develop from the Newton-Norman brouhaha was how his veteran players policed teammates to insure there wasn’t a repeat or further camp fights.
“When I talked to our guys, I said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to do these things,’” Rivera said. “The first thing, (linebacker) Thomas Davis comes up and says, ‘I’ve got this.’ (Center) Ryan Kalil comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, we’ll take care of this. Don’t worry about it.’ That’s all I had to say.
“The next thing I know, I’ve got my core leadership group going around taking care of things and telling them we’re not going to do this anymore. I was really proud of that.”
Who’s No. 1? Carolina’s championship hopes took a hit Wednesday, when top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament during a joint practice with the Miami Dolphins.
Speaking before that season-ending knee injury occurred; Newton said he expected Benjamin to blossom in his second NFL season.
“I’ve seen him grow with the understanding of what defenders are trying to do to him,” Newton said. “He’s not that lazy person that just uses his size to wall off defenders or is just a deep threat. He runs fluid routes. He’s very quarterback-friendly and gives me not only a big target to throw to, but his wing span and catch radius is unbelievable.”
With pickings slim in free agency and on the trade market for a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver, the Panthers are standing pat for now with their current unit, led by Corey “Philly” Brown, Ted Ginn Jr., Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Devin Funchess. Olsen, who is coming off the first 1,000-yard receiving season of his eight-year NFL career, and fellow tight end Ed Dickson could play bigger parts in the passing game as well.
It would be unfair to expect Funchess, a 2015 second-round pick, to match Benjamin’s strong rookie campaign from 2014 (73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns). Newton, though, is encouraged by what he’s seen from a second-round he has nicknamed “Fun-Fun.”
“He’s been everything and more than coach has asked for him with the details of his routes and the small things that will make Devin even more of a weapon for us,” Newton said.
Searching for pressure: On defense, the Panthers are still seeking a right end to fill the void left by Greg Hardy, signed with Dallas as a free agent. Rivera said 2014 second-round pick Kony Ealy will start Saturday night’s preseason game against Miami after Frank Alexander got the nod last week against Buffalo. Wes Horton also is in the mix to start.
Rivera admits to frustration over the Panthers not having a frontrunner from their current group of linemen.
“I want somebody to step up right now and become our starting right defensive end. Why? Because he will now be the guy that the other guys are trying to chase to replace,” Rivera said. “If you don’t have a clear-cut starter, then everybody thinks, ‘Oh, we’ll do it all by committee. We’re all going to get our 20 reps. Great.’
“I want a guy to come in and get 35, 40 reps and have other guys going, ‘Man, I want to play more so I’ve got to get better.’ Right now, nobody has really taken the bull by the horns … It’s one of these things that this competition is going to make or break a couple players. It really is.”
Fresh start for Oher: The Panthers are counting on left tackle Michael Oher becoming the latest bargain-basement gem unearthed by general manager Dave Gettleman. Oher struggled so mightily for the 2014 Tennessee Titans that he was released just one season after signing a four-year, $20 million deal.
Gettleman believes Oher can reinvent himself now that he is reunited in Carolina with John Matsko, his offensive line coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
“Sometimes guys go to places and it’s just not a good fit,” said Gettleman, who signed Oher to a two-year, $7 million contract. “I know what my eyes told me. I felt very comfortable about it. He’s playing pretty darn well right now.”
Popular Peanut: Another financially prudent offseason addition making an impact is cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman. Signed to a one-year, $1.75 million deal after 12 seasons in Chicago, the 34-year-old Tillman is expected to start opposite Norman with Bene Benwikere manning the slot.
Tillman also has shared the techniques with Panthers defensive backs that have made him the NFL’s most effective cornerback in forcing fumbles.
“We’ve got guys punching the ball out,” Panthers safety Roman Harper said. “(Secondary coach Steve) Wilks is mad because he’s been trying to get Josh and these guys to do it for years. Now since Peanut shows up, he gets all the credit.”