- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For just a second Thursday night, the new Carolina Panthers looked just as deliberate as the old ones.
The team that has set NFL offenses back a decade the past couple of years, ran one straight up the gut. New coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney weren’t playing any games as they talked about Cam Newton, the man they took with the first pick in the NFL draft.
They didn’t come right out and say it, but you don’t have to look for any mysterious lines to read between. Rivera uses the term “bottom line’’ a lot and, in this case it’s real obvious what the bottom line is.
The Panthers’ plan is to play Newton right away. In fact, go ahead and pencil him in as the opening-day starter.
“He’s not drafted to be a franchise savior,’’ Rivera said. “He’s drafted to be a part of what we do and how we do it. If this team is going to win a championship, we’re going to get back to running the football the way we did and the way we can.’’
Translation: The Panthers believe they’ve got enough offensive talent in place that they can put Newton in a good situation from the start. Think back to Ben Roethlisberger's rookie year in Pittsburgh. He sat just briefly behind Tommy Maddox before becoming the starter. Then, surrounded by a very good team, Roethlisberger came on and led the Steelers all the way to the AFC Championship Game before losing to New England. In those days, the Steelers asked Roethlisberger to throw the ball 22 or 24 times a game and they won.
They won the Super Bowl in Roethlisberger’s second season.
Yeah, Rivera and Hurney said all the right things about how Newton will have to compete with Jimmy Clausen, a second-round pick a year ago. But they probably would have said the same thing about Tony Pike, who now falls to third on the quarterback depth chart.
They even answered diplomatically when asked the standard question about bringing in a veteran to serve as a mentor or even as a bridge.
“I think that’s something to discuss after the draft,’’ Hurney said.
Yeah right, Clausen’s got a chance to win the job and the Panthers are going to go out and sign some veteran to help bring Newton along? Neither of those scenarios will happen unless Newton absolutely fails to pick up the playbook and has a disastrous training camp.
The Panthers already are in a youth movement. They just added the most important piece of that movement. The best news of all is that the lockout may be over and the Panthers can hand Newton a playbook when he arrives at Bank of America Stadium on Friday morning. On-field work in minicamps will follow quickly.
“The bottom line is Cam will play when Cam gets himself ready to play,’’ Rivera said.
That process starts as soon as Newton walks in the building in the morning. Heck, it started long ago as the Panthers went through a grueling process of looking into everything about Newton.
“I can tell you he is the most researched player I’ve ever been around,’’ Rivera said.
The Panthers did plenty of research on Newton’s character and background and they signed off on that more than a month ago. The Panthers started off considering eight players for the No. 1 pick and narrowed that number to four.
“I tried to ride that four as long as I could,’’ Rivera said. “Everything kept coming back to Cam.’’
This decision wasn’t about character or background nearly as much as it came down to purely a football decision. All that speculation about Newton not being ready to step right into an NFL offense? Well, it brought a lot more concern to the media and fans than it did to the Panthers. They put Newton through some serious tests long before they made this pick and they’re convinced he can handle their playbook.
They sent it to him a couple of months ago before they brought in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who is supposed to install a system similar to what the San Diego Chargers run. They also sent quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to meet with Newton.
With Carolina’s playbook in his mind, Newton was asked to guide Chudzinski and Shula through their offense. He passed the test with flying colors.
“He’s going to open things up with Rob Chudzinski’s play calling,’’ Rivera said. “Our coaches were on board right off the bat.’’
Chudzinski and Shula came back to Charlotte with visions of Newton extending their plays with his arm and legs dancing in their heads. They made a presentation to Rivera about how they could use Newton in their offense.
“We drafted a player who touches the ball on every play,’’ Hurney said.
He just might touch the ball on every play from the very start of the season. Remember, the Panthers are convinced the rest of their offense isn’t nearly as bad as last season’s 2-14 record would suggest. They have running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. They have a good offensive line, led by Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil, that can be great if Jeff Otah comes back from injury. They've already imported veteran tight end Jeremy Shockey and they're high on young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. Even if veteran receiver Steve Smith is on his way out the door in a trade, the Panthers are convinced they can plug in a quarterback and instantly become much better.
“I think his learning curve will be a lot quicker,’’ Rivera said. “It’s not just about one guy.’’
No, in some ways, it’s not. There are 10 other players on offense and the Panthers think those guys are fine. They just need a quarterback to ease their offense into this century. Over time, he might even get the chance to do a lot more than he'll be asked initially.
They drafted that guy Thursday night. Rivera’s right. Newton doesn’t have to come in and be the savior -- at least not right away. He just needs to come in and be the starting quarterback right away and the Carolina offense -- and the entire team -- instantly will be much improved.
9hEric D. Williams