NFL: Cam's role to expand

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 5, 2012

By Steve Reed
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton set an NFL record for rushing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback in 2011, became the first player in league history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 500 and almost single-handedly reignited sagging interest in the Carolina Panthers.
So what more could Panthers coach Ron Rivera ask of Newton?
Well, leadership for one.
Rivera said he couldn’t be happier with Newton’s rookie season, but wants to see him take greater ownership of the team as he embarks on his second season.
And Rivera thinks he will.
“I think the one thing is his leadership, just keep developing that,” Rivera said. “We always talked about how respectful he was to the veteran guys. He didn’t want to step on people’s toes or get in people’s way.”
Rivera said Newton won’t have to worry about that next season.
“I told him you’ll be the veteran,” Rivera said.
Newton hardly had time to establish himself as a team leader last offseason given the Panthers didn’t get on the field until the end of July because of the NFL lockout.
Almost before you knew it preseason games were upon him and within a few weeks Newton was named the team’s starting quarterback of an offense that finished 32nd in the league in 2010. He spent more time worrying about learning a complicated offense than he did becoming a leader of men.
“This season took me by storm,” Newton said.
Still, Newton flourished and proved he’ll be a force in the future because of his strength, his ability to keep plays alive with his feet and his strong arm.
“Unfortunately he’s going to be in our division for a while,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Rivera said Newton is “everything you want in a young quarterback,” even if he’s earned a reputation for taking losing harder than most.
At one point late in the season, center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Jordan Gross talked to Newton about not getting too down on himself.
“I know he does things a little different,” Rivera said. “He takes things a little bit harder than most people but that’s just who he is and that’s his makeup.”
Clearly Rivera has no complaints about Newton’s play on the field.
Newton threw for 4,051 yards and scored 35 touchdowns — 21 passing, 14 rushing — and is a strong contender for the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award despite 17 interceptions. On several occasions he made incredible plays, including on a 49-yard touchdown run against Tampa Bay in which he juked out a linebacker and outraced defenders to the end zone.
Rivera has mentioned he believes the rest of the team needs to bring its game up to Newton’s level.
“I don’t think that I necessarily need to give him a message,” Rivera said after the team’s 45-17 loss to the Saints on Sunday. “I think he understands exactly what he needs to do. He’s special. The truth of the matter is there are certain instances and certain areas that we (as a team and coaching staff) need to catch up.”
With another season under offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski — providing he doesn’t leave to take a head coaching job — Newton believes the sky is the limit for the Panthers.
“It’s still a learning process for me,” Newton said. “I mean I learned so much the entire season. I can do so many things better. I have so much respect for this league that a lot of people don’t understand what it takes to be a player in the National Football League, let alone the quarterback.”
The general feeling in Carolina is if the Panthers can get some guys back from injured reserve — they placed 18 players there in 2011, including several starters — and add a few pieces to the defense they have all the makings of a playoff contender.
“I honestly can’t wait until (minicamp) on April 16,” Rivera said. “I’m excited about this group of guys and what we can be become.”
Newton is just one of the reasons for Rivera’s optimism.
Carolina’s offense exploded in 2011 with their top three ball carriers — Newton and running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams — all averaging at least 5.4 yards per carry.
Wide receiver Steve Smith had a banner season with 1,394 yards receiving and seven touchdown catches and is headed to the Pro Bowl for a fifth time.
And the offensive line will not only remain intact, but they’ll also get starters Jeff Otah and Geoff Schwartz back from injuries.
“I think if we don’t have any coaching staff leaving — and my fingers are crossed — I think this is going to be the first time in a long time I’ve had the same offensive philosophy for two years (in a row),” Newton said. “I look forward to it and to try and better myself. I have to work hard both mentally and physically to be a better quarterback.”