The forgotten one?

Cam Newton's fight to stay relevant says a lot about the state of franchise QBs

Originally Published: September 20, 2013
By Ryan McGee and Carmen R. Thompson | ESPN The Magazine

THE TOWEL HAS moved. It's not gone. It'll never be gone. But yes, the towel perpetually stretched atop Cam Newton's head has been moved back an inch. Maybe two. Now everyone finally can see that smile, the one previously available only via TV commercials and Auburn game film, live and in person. "Look at that smile, man," Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert says, pointing to the quarterback as he sits at his locker. "Doesn't that smile make you want to block for the man? Or at least go buy some clothes?"

Newton laughs. Tolbert laughs. The locker room laughs. Newton beams that smile and then makes eye contact with one … two … then all of his teammates. This is no small thing. Just ask the Panthers, who are finally, in Newton's third season, seeing their would-be franchise player revealed. To them, this feels like a new Cam. To him, it feels like the old Cam. The friendly, funny, ridiculously talented guy who never loses -- like the new guys blowing up the league in San Francisco, Indianapolis, Washington and Seattle. But all his teammates had seen for the past two seasons was the guy underneath the towel, the one with a 13–19 record and a history of being standoffish. The one who, in today's warp-speed whirl of hype and expectations, had vanished from "future of the NFL" conversations.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
John Huet for ESPNAfter a record-breaking start, the Panthers QB has struggled to keep his career progressing.
Let's face it: Franchise QBs come attached with all kinds of stripes and shortcomings. There's one who, instead of being short, is the second coming of Braveheart (who dat, Drew Brees?), one whose good looks and romantic foibles have produced three beautiful kids, not two baby mamas (hello, Mr. Brady!), and another whose OCD tendencies produce masterful focus, not diva drama (do we need to say it?). Nobody said it was logical. And there's only one way to enter this wonderland of positive spin: Win. "This is year three," Newton says. "This is the year they say you either do it or you don't. I know that. Everyone in football knows that. And the people up there in those stands know that. Year three."

Year three is when he either wins or is forced to cede his once-ironclad place as the Quarterback Who Will Forever Change Football to the dynamic leaders drafted since his No. 1 selection. What will it take to win everyone over? To remind people that he was RG3 a full 12 months before there was RG3? To be one of those quarterbacks they see on TV every Monday night, guys who aren't slow-cooking their careers but walked in the door as winners?

"People automatically assume I just hate Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, RG3 or Russell Wilson," Newton said prior to dropping the season opener to Wilson's Seahawks. "But I really am a fan of all those guys. Like, really. I'm watching all the games. Let this competition make me a better player, a better person, a better leader. If you're not relevant, you can't hate the person who's relevant."

His first steps toward re-achieving relevance have been to work on relevance within his own locker room. Throughout the Seattle game, the difference between Newton and Wilson was plainly visible and had nothing to do with throwing or running. Newton was a part of his sideline; Wilson owned his. In the fourth quarter of the tight game, before Seattle made its backbreaker drive, Wilson stopped the offense as it stepped onto the field for a pep talk that everyone, even Pete Carroll, leaned in to hear. "There's a measure of respect you have to earn, and he's done that," Newton says of Wilson. "I'm doing my work on that right now." He's got a ways to go: After the strip fumble by DeAngelo Williams with 5:25 left that essentially lost the game for Carolina, it wasn't Newton who did verbal damage control coming off the field. It was wideout Steve Smith. Newton retreated to his customary sideline position 15 yards away from the group, towel on head.

During his first two seasons, the alone time that Newton thought would be viewed as proof of his dedication was taken by teammates as his being aloof, condescending. He met with coaches one-on-one. He lifted weights by himself, usually in a room separate from the team. When clubhouse crowds gathered because Smith had thrown down one of his legendary dominoes challenges or because half a dozen guys were sitting around a table playing cards, their quarterback had his face buried in his iPad, Beats by Dre a-thumping.

"I'm extremely shy with people I don't know," he says. "If I don't know a guy or a female and they approach me, I'm going to put my shield up and try to feel them out. But I'm a loving person. If you crack that shell, then I'm all jokes and games."

Cam NewtonJohn Huet for ESPN"If they give five minutes to get to know me, I'll be able to change their perception."
The Panthers veterans waited for Newton to take the initiative for more than a season, and then they started doing the cracking. After his most infamous towel incident, sulking on the bench, head covered, during the final quarter of an early 2012 drubbing by the Giants, Smith called him out publicly. ("The quarterbacks who play behind him are always up, getting mental reps. So I told him, 'You can get some mental reps or you can sit on that bench and sulk.' ") During voluntary workouts last spring, linebacker Thomas Davis went into the room where Newton worked out alone and asked him, within earshot of the entire locker room, if he was ever going to lift with them. "Are you going to be a teammate?" Davis asked.

Davis and the other veterans had no idea that Newton was already asking himself that question. "It's on me to find out what the reason is that a lot of people say, 'Well, I don't like Cam.'

I feel like if they give five minutes to get to know me, I'll be able to change their perception of the vibe I've got about myself."

He arrived at training camp having made a promise to himself to do just that. He hit the playbook hard. "The playcalls are the length of a Dr. Seuss book, for real. You have to go home and repeat the call as much as you can so that when it's called, your teammates can be confident you're prepared." He breezed around the Wofford College campus on a Segway. He took off the Beats from time to time. He played cards in the cafeteria. And for the first time, he approached guys like Smith, Davis, 11-year lineman Jordan Gross and fellow rookie of the year Luke Kuechly and asked them how they were doing. "And then," says center Ryan Kalil, "he really listened to the answer."

Still, Smith constantly reminds Newton that his newly earned captaincy is "just a patch with C on it," and more than one of his teammates is quick to warn, "This isn't his team yet."

Says Newton: "You've got to be a person who can adapt to any kind of situation. There are so many egos on all sides of the ball, and you have to be able to communicate with each and every one of those egos -- the offensive line, the wide receivers, the fullback, the running back. It's about getting those guys to buy into you, to think, This is a guy I'd run through a brick wall for. This is the guy I'm going to risk everything I have for because I know he's going to take this team to the promised land."

You know, the kinds of things teammates believe about franchise QBs.

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