- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- When the Carolina Panthers end a training camp practice, there’s a universal yell from the fans.
“Cam!" they shriek.
It’s an attempt to get quarterback Cam Newton to come sign autographs. It’s also a reminder that Newton’s popularity is greater than that of the 89 other players in camp combined.
“Imagine what it would be like if we win," a team employee said on a recent day while fans yelled Newton’s name.
Yeah, imagine the frenzy around Newton if the Panthers produced a winning season in his third year. That’s pretty much the objective, because coach Ron Rivera needs to win to keep his job, and this franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2008 season. And it’s mostly up to Newton, who is somewhat a polarizing figure, to make it happen.
The guy is an attention magnet. He’s beloved by Carolina fans but is often bashed by the national media. Presumably, the negativity stems from episodes in which he pouted when things were going badly, and critics have questioned his leadership skills.
But those who know Newton best say what you see isn’t what you get. They say Newton is ready to take the Panthers to the playoffs.
“The thing that I really admire about Cam is, even through all the adversity and even through all of the stuff the media has tried to create that’s not true about him, he’s done a really good job of weathering those storms," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. “His self-evaluation is phenomenal. He’s approached many guys and said, 'Look, I know I don’t do a great job with this or that,' and he’s the first one to tell you that he’s working on it and he’s going to do his best to make sure bad things don’t happen again. I’ve been around guys that are too prideful to ever say that or make an effort to do that.
“I’ve played around guys who will tell you, 'This is who I am, take it or leave it. I really don’t care what you think of me.' Cam’s not like that. That’s something that I really respect out of him, and that’s going to help not only with his teammates, but with himself."
Those who have spent the most time around Newton say the quarterback has grown immensely and is more than ready to be a leader.
“People have talked about him handling the ups and the downs," said offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who worked as quarterbacks coach during Newton’s first two seasons. “We all hate to lose. You don’t ever want to get used to losing and justifying and saying, 'That’s OK, we can get them next week.' You want them to burn inside, but on the outside you have to manage that. It’s not golf. You’re not by yourself. You’ve got 10 other guys that feel just as bad as you do, so channel that feeling and get the most of not just yourself, but get the most out of those other guys. That’s what leadership is in my opinion."
If Newton can get the most out of himself and his teammates, the Panthers will be in the playoffs. And the Newton critics finally will be silenced.
"He's had the best first two seasons of any quarterback," general manager Dave Gettleman said. “The elephant in the room is the win-loss record. Now, it's time to win."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Ron Rivera needs to make the playoffs. Rivera needs to win, and he needs to do it quickly. The Panthers have gotten off to dismal starts in each of his first two seasons. Owner Jerry Richardson spent several days after last season debating whether he should keep Rivera.
Richardson ultimately decided that the team’s strong finish last season was a sign that Rivera had the Panthers pointed in the right direction. But Richardson is running out of patience.
Anything less than a playoff berth probably won’t be enough for Rivera to keep his job.
2. The offense needs to find an identity. Newton is talented in so many different ways that the Panthers haven’t figured out how to use him properly. That task is now up to Shula as he takes over the offense.
I think Shula has a chance to be one of this season’s success stories. In his previous stint as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s, Shula was bashed for being too conservative. But he didn’t have very talented personnel. He also was under instructions from coach Tony Dungy to keep things conservative.
Shula is too smart to be conservative in Carolina. He has a rare talent in Newton and good skill-position players such as DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen. I can’t see Carolina’s offense being boring.
3. The secondary can make this defense great. On paper, Carolina’s front seven is as good as any in the league. But some very large questions remain in a secondary that wasn’t very good last season.
Free safety Charles Godfrey is the only sure thing. Because of salary-cap issues, the Panthers weren’t able to bring in any big names to patch up the secondary and settled for several midlevel free agents. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw out of the secondary during my visit to camp.
Mike Mitchell looks like he can fit nicely at strong safety. Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence aren’t household names, but they’re smart veteran cornerbacks and they seem to have the edge on youngsters Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. Still, it remains to be seen how this secondary will match up in a division that includes wide receivers such as Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The way the team finished last season showed that the players have bought into Rivera. It also showed he’s grown as a coach. The Panthers made major changes to their offensive scheme after the dismal start and wound up winning five of their final six games.
If the Panthers can carry over that momentum, anything is possible. This is a team that’s been down for a while. But there are plenty of players with elite talent on this roster. This isn’t a team that is building from scratch. This is a team that simply is looking to turn a corner.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
Linebacker Jon Beason and Stewart have been unable to practice so far as they attempt to come back from injuries. Both are extremely talented players. But their injury histories are troubling.
It remains to be seen if Beason and Stewart can get back to being anywhere close to the players they once were.
A lot of people rip on Carolina’s receiving corps and say it has no depth beyond Smith. I have to disagree with that after watching the Panthers in camp. I think Brandon LaFell is a much better No. 2 receiver than he gets credit for. I also think reclamation project Ted Ginn Jr. might pay off because he has elite speed, and Domenik Hixon gives the Panthers a steady veteran backup.
That new-found depth at wide receiver doesn’t bode well for David Gettis. I know he’s a fan favorite because he had a nice rookie season in 2010. But injuries have limited Gettis to only two games over the past two seasons. I don’t know whether Gettis still is dealing with injuries, but I watched him in camp and he didn’t look much like he did as a rookie.
Sixth-round draft pick Kenjon Barner is going to have an impact on this team in some way. The backfield is crowded, and the Panthers have plenty of other options in the return game. But Barner has explosive quickness, and I think the Panthers will find a way to get him on the field.
Even though he hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since the 2010 season, I think defensive tackle Colin Cole has a shot at making the roster. Cole is massive and can be a nice backup run-stuffer to rookie Star Lotulelei.
Maybe it’s a smokescreen, but I don’t think I saw a read-option play the entire time I was at Carolina’s camp.
Despite their salary-cap limitations, I think the Panthers made an excellent move by signing free-agent linebacker Chase Blackburn. Beason and Thomas Davis have a history of injuries. Blackburn has starting experience and can play all three linebacker positions.
I’m not sure the Panthers are sold on their depth on the offensive line. They’re taking a look at some young backups now, but I think they could look to add a veteran or two.