The Panthers' home locker room has emptied quickly after a 30--23 loss to the Packers, leaving just a few players behind to breathe the air of desperation that settles in ominously when an NFL season begins with two losses. Among those lingering is 11-year veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, one of only two Carolina players still on the roster from the franchise's Super Bowl loss to the Patriots eight years ago.
Smith, 32, leans against the wooden frame of his dressing cubicle as family members wait nearby. He was a pivotal figure in the Green Bay game, with six receptions for 156 yards but also a careless and costly third-quarter fumble when the Panthers were driving to regain the lead. Yet Smith is not the story on this day. Nor are most of his teammates. Cam Newton, the rookie quarterback selected by Carolina with the first pick in the NFL draft after leading Auburn to the national championship last January—he is the story.
Every quarterback taken No. 1 is subject to relentless scrutiny until he can be classified for posterity as a success or a failure. This process can take years, but interim grades are dispensed frequently, especially for a prospect such as Newton, whose combination of size (6'5", 248 pounds), skills ("He's big, he's strong, he's fast, and he's got a hell of an arm," says Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers) and inexperience in a pro-style passing game make him a particularly intriguing high-stakes experiment.
After throwing for 422 yards, an NFL record for a rookie debut, in a 28--21 Week 1 loss at Arizona, Newton had 432 against the Super Bowl champion Packers. His total of 854 passing yards in his first two games is the most by an NFL player (the remarkability tempered somewhat by the name of the previous record-holder, Todd Marinovich, who had 638). But Newton also threw three interceptions. He was good. And he was also bad. And he lost. "I think what happened today was that he experienced the NFL," said Smith. "He experienced the high because of the way he played overall. And he experienced the low, which were the three picks. And that's the NFL. He's going to have to keep learning."
That process started four months earlier.
BRADENTON, FLA., FIRST WEEK IN MAY
It was an unusual arrangement in one of the strangest years in NFL history. Newton was drafted in New York City on the night of Thursday, April 28. Because of a one-day court-imposed hiatus in the labor impasse between owners and players, during which teams were allowed to resume operations, Newton spent the day after the draft at Panthers headquarters in Charlotte. He met with coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and, most important, got a copy of the playbook.
Soon after the lockout resumed on April 30, Newton moved with his father and two brothers into a 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom villa on the grounds of the IMG Academy in Bradenton. There he'd participate in a daily workout regimen designed by IMG's Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback, to mirror an NFL off-season program. "We tried to create the environment he would have had without the lockout," says Weinke, who was 1--14 as a rookie starter with Carolina in 2001, the first of his six seasons with the team.
George Whitfield, the California-based quarterbacks coach who tutored Newton before the February combine, also came in for the sessions, along with former NFL QB Ken Dorsey, then with IMG and now a scout for the Panthers. Newton's expenses were paid entirely by Under Armour, the athletic equipment manufacturer with whom he has an endorsement contract. Other NFL players participated, including Vikings backup quarterbacks Joe Webb and Christian Ponder (like Newton a rookie), and first-year Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb.
Newton's IMG stay included not only daily physical training (throwing, lifting, drills) but also long classroom sessions during which Weinke taught Newton the Carolina offense and then schooled him in videotape study. On one of their first days together Weinke challenged Newton. Like most football fans, he had viewed the ESPN session in which former NFL coach Jon Gruden tells Newton that NFL play-calling language can be overwhelming and says to him, "Call something at Auburn that's a little verbal... . Give me something. What's an Auburn play sound like?"
Newton stammered that Gruden was putting him on the spot and could come up with nothing more complex than "Thirty-six." So after Newton had studied the Carolina playbook for a few days, Weinke sent him to a whiteboard and asked him to repeat, and draw up, the following play: Deuce right (formation), Nasty fly (motion), Scat right (protection), Spray 834 (the route tree, in the Coryell "digit" system), Y pivot (tagging the Y receiver with an additional move), H swing M (also tagging the H-back).
According to Weinke, Newton repeated the play flawlessly and drew it cleanly on the board. "I wanted to see what he was capable of learning," says Weinke. "And there was no question that he had studied that playbook. It was unbelievable. I had seen the Gruden thing, so I was shocked at what he could actually do—pleasantly so." Before training camp started, Weinke, Whitfield and Dorsey had Newton on the practice field, throwing every route; they were even shouting out defensive situations that forced Newton to check off certain receivers, albeit without actual defenders.
Newton showed another dimension. One afternoon Weinke was working with Ponder, the No. 12 pick from Florida State, and Webb, a second-year pro. Newton had been given the day off but showed up and volunteered to play receiver for the other two quarterbacks. "That alone was impressive," says Weinke, "but then he started running patterns. What an unbelievable athlete he is. Ponder threw one go pattern down the left sideline, and Cam just ran it down and snatched it out of the air with his left hand."
GLENDALE, ARIZ., WEEK 1
There was little reason to expect that Newton's first game would be historic. He completed only 42% of his passes in the preseason and, says sixth-year center Ryan Kalil, "struggled early on, figuring everything out." Rivera and Chudzinski gambled by not allowing Newton to wear a wristband with the plays inscribed on it because they wanted him to hear the entire play called into his helmet receiver, which would get him more familiar with the language of the offense. (When, for instance, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers use a wristband, coordinators can shorten the play calls to a single two- or three-digit number, which the quarterback then matches to the play on his forearm.)
But it was as if the urgency of the regular season made Newton better. He completed 24 of 37 attempts against the Cardinals in the opener, and more important, handled the intellectual demands as if he were a veteran. "There were at least two times where I made a protection call and he changed it," says Kalil. "Basically he said, 'No, they're coming from over here.' And both times he was right. Hey, I saw the Gruden thing too. I wondered what he could handle. But we got both of those blitzes blocked in Arizona."
Rivera was likewise encouraged the next day when he watched end zone tape of the game. A linebacker as a player and a careerlong defensive coach, Rivera was particularly impressed by Newton's 26-yard, second-quarter touchdown pass to Smith on a corner pattern. "He used his eyes to move the safety all the way out of the play," Rivera said two days before the Green Bay game. "Then he came back to Steve. And he kept it all on rhythm."
Still, Newton hadn't lost a game since fall 2009, when he was the quarterback at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, and he took the defeat at Arizona hard. "He was hurting on Monday," said Rivera. "My message was, Get over it and move ahead. And before he left the building that afternoon, he watched the Arizona tape and then took Green Bay tape home with him. He came back on Tuesday and studied more Green Bay, and by the time everybody else came back on Wednesday, he was himself again."
CHARLOTTE, SUNDAY, 1:02 P.M.
The Packers' defense represented a significant step up in class for Newton. Their behemoth front can nullify a running game and pressure a passer without blitzing. Linebacker Clay Matthews is one of the most creative edge rushers in the game. And coordinator Dom Capers has been disguising defenses and using zone blitzes in the NFL for 26 years with eight teams. "Well, of course, with a rookie quarterback," said Capers, in an old Texas drawl, last Friday, "you try to show him some things he hasn't seen."
Newton at first played like Brady. His initial throw was a 23-yard deep corner to tight end Jeremy Shockey, and he hit six of his first seven passes —"They scripted the start, and it was obvious they were ready," said Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji—en route to a 7--0 Carolina lead that eventually became 13--0 early in the second quarter.
But, predictably, it wouldn't remain so easy. After starting out 10 for 12 for 151 yards, Newton completed just 4 of his next 13 throws, with two interceptions to Charles Woodson, who entered Sunday having played 183 more NFL games than Newton and having intercepted 47 passes.
His 48th came when he lined up as a Cover Two corner over Smith with 3:11 left in the first half. Woodson bumped Smith, then let him go, as if passing him to the safety over the top, standard Cover Two technique. "But then I sank [dropped] back," Woodson said. Newton's pass sailed over tight end Greg Olsen, who was crossing underneath, and into Woodson's arms.
"On that one," said Smith, "I don't know who he was throwing it to. But it was too short for me and too long for Olsen."
Asked what he thought Newton might have seen, Woodson smirked and said "I have no clue."
On the Panthers' second snap of the third quarter, a critical series with Green Bay having just taken a 14--13 lead, Newton tried to escape the pocket, but Matthews, who had earlier been juked in the open field by him, held the edge and pushed right tackle Jeff Otah back toward Newton. Thrown off his rhythm—"Everything in the passing game is rhythm and timing," Weinke recalled stressing in their spring and summer meetings—Newton locked his eyes on Smith who was running a shallow cross with Woodson shadowing him, and then threw, late and off his back foot. Two mistakes and a predictable result.
"I read Steve running across the field," Woodson said. "Then I looked at [Newton] and saw that he was getting ready to throw it, so I just undercut Steve." A ball out in front of Smith might have been catchable, but Newton's pass was slightly behind, an easy pick number 49 for Woodson.
"I thought for the most part [Newton] played pretty well," said Woodson. "He'll get better with experience."
After Smith's fumble, Newton served up another pick with 5:22 left in the third quarter, overthrowing Legedu Naanee on a deep curl and finding safety Morgan Burnett. Rodgers turned that one into a field goal and a 10-point lead. Newton subsequently drove the Panthers inside the Packers' five-yard line but missed on consecutive throws to Naanee, and Carolina had to settle for three. Another foray inside the 10 was halted when Newton was sacked at the six on third down and then, scrambling, was brought down by Matthews at the three on fourth down. Two plays later Rodgers tossed an 84-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson to finish off the Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, SUNDAY, 5:28 P.M.
Newton walks from a side entrance to a small rostrum, where eight seconds of awkward silence precede the first question. The inquisitors are less forgiving than a week earlier, because with each loss the good in Newton's work becomes less important than how he contributed to the defeat. (Ask Troy Aikman, who went 0--11 in his first year as a starter; or Peyton Manning, who was 3--13.)
Newton trots out familiar responses. "The more I see it, the more I know it's not college no more," he says. "But I'm gonna get it... . It's not competing. I don't like that word, competing. You don't go into the game to compete. You go into each game to win."
Newton is measured but frustrated. Asked if he feels compelled to run from the pocket, he says, "No." Asked about one of those late red zone failures, he begins with, "One of the receivers ran the wrong route"—the wrong way to start that answer no matter what follows.
The session lasts for just more than eight minutes. Already the ritual is getting old, as the rookie chases a win.