Nothing against the perpetual sunshine, beautiful beaches and fruity drinks, but Cam Newton hopes he’s not in Honolulu every year.
As he prepares to take his place among the NFL’s elite in the Pro Bowl tonight, the Carolina Panthers record-setting rookie quarterback has his sights on another postseason game next year – the one affixed with Roman numerals.
“I wouldn’t even want to be in this game, to keep it real frank and brash,” Newton said. “Hopefully, I’ll be playing for the right to be playing in the game next week.”
Players on Super Bowl teams are not eligible for the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s version of the all-star game. That is how Newton ended up joining quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees on the NFC roster. As the first alternate, Newton replaced Eli Manning when Manning’s New York Giants beat San Francisco to advance to the Super Bowl.
“I’m real good,” Newton said Friday in a telephone interview. “Beautiful weather in Hawaii. No complaints from me.”
Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, is one of three Panthers in tonight’s game. Center Ryan Kalil and receiver Steve Smith were voted in as starters, and Smith paid for the team’s other receivers, the receiver coaches and their families to join him in Honolulu.
The Pro Bowl berth is the culmination of a remarkable season for Newton, who passed for more yards than any rookie in NFL history and set several other team and league records.
“The young man’s done everything you’d want the No. 1 pick in the league to do,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I’m very happy for him.”
It’s almost laughable to recall the critics last year questioning whether Newton had the skills and background – he ran a much less complicated offense at Auburn – to succeed. There were also character concerns that stemmed from his father’s pay-to-play scheme with Mississippi State when Newton was transferring from junior college, as well as a stolen laptop incident at Florida.
“There’s always questions about people. But we felt like we did a very thorough investigation on him,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. “We’re so happy that he’s getting the recognition of being in the Pro Bowl because he’s done so much for our organization and our team and the approach he takes as far as his work ethic.”
With his big smile, Superman celebration after touchdowns and the big plays he made each week, Newton quickly became a fan favorite. Many Charlotte-area stores – including the Team Store at Bank of America Stadium – sold out of the popular sizes of Newton’s No. 1 jersey before the holidays.
“He changed the offense upside-down. He’s the face of the franchise now,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “He’s young; he brings a lot of energy to us.”
Happy in Charlotte
Though Newton kept a relatively low profile during his first season, the Atlanta native said he loves his new city.
“Charlotte is a place where I feel I can call home now,” said Newton, who rents a condo in an uptown high-rise. “I love the environment, the fans. Everybody’s still yearning for a championship to call their own. Years ago, the Carolina Panthers went to the Super Bowl and had the NFC championship. As you go around and you eat dinner and (talk to) fans, everybody’s yearning for another great season.”
After winning national championships in his final two college seasons – at Blinn (Texas) College and Auburn – Newton had a tough time dealing with losing. He brushed off a teammate’s attempt to encourage him after an October loss in Chicago, and was criticized much of the season for putting a towel over his head and sitting on the bench between offensive series.
But after Kalil and veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross spoke with him late in the season, Newton tried to be more upbeat and vocal. The Panthers won four of their final six games to finish 6-10.
“He hates losing with a passion, and we’re right behind him. We don’t like to lose, neither,” Munnerlyn said. “He lets people know that he doesn’t like to lose. He wants to take us to the Super Bowl. I’m behind him 100 percent and I’m ready to go out there next year and see what we’ve got.”
A public future
Newton will split his offseason between Charlotte and Atlanta, where he bought a home not far from his parents’ house in College Park.
Carlos Fleming, Newton’s marketing agent with IMG, said Newton plans to be more visible in the Charlotte community this year.
“It’s a gradual process. He just went through his first season to really get acclimated in Charlotte,” Fleming said. “We’re all doing our due diligence as to where the needs are in the market. A lot of the stuff that he’ll do, he won’t do just to get the feel-good attention in the media. … A lot of it he’ll do without the cameras.”
But Fleming knows Newton can increase his charitable impact and marketing reach by building on his success and turning the Panthers into a consistent winner.
As Newton said, the Pro Bowl appearances are nice. The Super Bowl is better.
“With me being around this program and being around an excellent organization with the leadership of Jerry Richardson and Marty Hurney, this ball is going to be moving in a positive way in the years to come,” Newton said.
“I was kind of excited to have one season to go through. For it not to go our way – because if it had went our way we’d still be playing – but at the same time it’s very interesting for this upcoming season because we’re only a couple players away from being an elite, playoff team.”