Commentary

Newton fuels Panthers' optimism

Quarterback's upside has Carolina thinking playoffs -- and beyond

Originally Published: July 31, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In July, every team is undefeated. Every team is optimistic. Every team is bullish on the upcoming season, on draft picks panning out, on players progressing from Year 1 to Year 2 and beyond, on schemes and schedules and game plans.

In July, dreams haven't been dashed by the realities of an arduous season. Injuries. Losses. Mistakes. Blown opportunities.

It is part of the beauty of the game, this July exuberance. Sometimes it is real. Sometimes it is manufactured. In the case of the Carolina Panthers, there is no pretense. Their optimism is real and unfiltered, and no one will apologize for it. The team went 6-10 last season and hasn't sniffed the playoffs since it last won the NFC South in 2008, yet to a man, everyone affiliated with the team contends that it can make the postseason.

The reason is simple: Cam Newton.

One man can't lead a franchise on his own, but one man can infuse a team with hope, swagger and belief that finally, after 2-14 and 6-10, with a coaching change in between, this thing is heading in the right direction. A break here, a made play there, and 6-10 can turn into 10-6, and if the New York Giants can make the playoffs with a 9-7 record and do what they did last season, why can't the Newton-led Panthers?

He is that talented.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesPanthers coach Ron Rivera says Cam Newton is "not even close to his ceiling."

"People ask me, 'Oh, will he be like a Peyton Manning?'" Carolina coach Ron Rivera said, sitting in a golf cart after the Panthers practiced Monday night. "He'll be a different type of player than Peyton, for the way he plays and his style. He's not even close to his ceiling. He can get better."

Rivera knows the questions all too well: Has the organization surrounded Newton with enough talent to help him get it done? Can the offensive line protect him? Does Newton have enough targets? Can a defense with a ton of ifs actually rush the passer this season, create more turnovers, get to the quarterback and get off the field so Newton can do what he does best?

The Panthers' defense doesn't have to be the Baltimore Ravens of 2000 or the Chicago Bears of 1985, but it has to be better than it was in 2011, when it finished 28th in the league in yards allowed, 27th in points, 25th in sacks and 17th in takeaways. The Panthers have to stay healthy, unlike last season when seven defensive players with starting experience -- five linemen and two linebackers -- ended up on injured reserve. And they will have to get big play out of three potential rookie starters: Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, Oklahoma defensive end Frank Alexander and Coastal Carolina cornerback Josh Norman.

The Panthers selected Kuechly ninth overall in the 2012 draft to play the weakside linebacker spot alongside middle linebacker Jon Beason, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles, and strongside linebacker James Anderson. During Carolina's second practice of training camp on Sunday night at Wofford College, Kuechly batted down a Newton pass intended for tight end Greg Olsen, and a day later said his hand still hurt.

"He can sling it," Kuechly said.

"He drills it, man," fifth-year safety Charles Godfrey added. "He drills it. I haven't seen nobody throw it like him in a while. He can let it go."

Newton did just that during one 11-on-11 session, hitting wide receiver Steve Smith in stride with a pass Rivera estimated traveled 65 yards in the air. Later, Newton overthrew Brandon LaFell on a deep go route. Running full speed, LaFell could not catch up to the pass, and had to scale the snow fencing behind the end zone.

"He has a tight-spiraled ball," Rivera said, "and when he throws that ball perfect, he reminds me of the way Brett Favre used to throw those tight spirals. He just steps into it and flicks it. He's got a real strong, accurate deep throw."

Since smashing Manning's rookie record for passing yards in a season, Newton has balanced making time to build his brand against making time to grow his career. While Rivera praised Newton for being diligent in his offseason preparation, Newton bristled at a question about how he balanced his endorsement responsibilities against his work duties.

"It was all right," Newton said. "Just trying to focus on football."

Asked about his expectations for this season, Newton said, "I think the expectations have already been set. I'm not going to say nothing that nobody else is already thinking. I'm just going to do my part and make myself accountable of my role on this team. Hopefully everybody else, well, I know everybody else will do the same. That's my faith, and that's what I know this team is capable of doing."

And that, as center Ryan Kalil so eloquently put it in a full-page advertisement to Panthers fans published in the Charlotte Observer last week, is to win Super Bowl XLVII. Why will they? "Because we have to," Kalil wrote.

Although he would not divulge how much the advertisement cost him -- "It was expensive," he said -- Kalil didn't back down from the statement, and his teammates, and even Rivera, loved it. There is a buzz around the Panthers that hasn't been there, maybe ever, a confidence and a swagger.

"When the bar was so low for so many years, looking at the potential, you can't get nothing but excited," said Smith, who has been with the Panthers since they drafted him in the third round in 2001. "You have to feel it. It's always exciting on every team, all 32 teams believe they have a chance, and that's what training camp is, giving people an opportunity to see what every team has to offer. You never know once the season starts how it's going to look or where it's going to go, and that's the great part of it."

Yes, that is the great part of it. It is why we watch. Carolina has huge aspirations and a challenging early slate of games at Tampa Bay, against New Orleans and against the Giants on a Thursday night. After that, the Panthers should have a good idea where they stand. Realistically, they are probably another year from making a playoff push, but they have the most important piece in place, so they have hope.