Cam Newton doesn’t like to be compared to other quarterbacks.
The former Heisman Trophy winner, No. 1 overall pick and franchise quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, Newton wants to be one of a kind.
Sunday against San Francisco (6-2), the Panthers (5-3) will be facing a quarterback that may be as similar to Newton as there is in the NFL in Colin Kaepernick.
“I don’t want to compare myself to Kaepernick,” Newton said. “He’s an explosive player, don’t get me wrong. I think he does some things that I can’t do. I try to assimilate some things he does and I’m pretty sure our games are somewhat different in a lot of aspects.”
The two entered the league in 2011 and have since becoming faces of their respective franchises. Kaepernick’s dual-threat ability is comparable to Newton’s, and both registered fast 40-yard dash times at the combine (Kaepernick’s 4.53 seconds edged Newton’s 4.59.)
Though Kaepernick is a touch faster than Newton, the Panthers’ quarterback is one of the toughest to tackle at the position with his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame.
Both have strong arms. This summer Kaepernick, a former high school baseball player, threw out the first pitch at a San Francisco Giants game, and the radar gun read 87 mph.
But the two have their differences. Off the field the two enjoy celebrity status, but with vastly differing images.
Newton is the clean-cut endorser of several brands, many of which have been with him since the beginning of his NFL career. Kaepernick, on the other hand, displays heavily tattooed arms with an equal number of endorsements.
Kaepernick, importantly, has more wins. He’s 13-5 as a starter, with a Super Bowl appearance already. Newton is 18-22 and, after 2 1/2 years in the league, finally leading a team that is relevant on a national scale.
“They both have great arms, they’re both athletic, they both want to win,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “To me the similarities can be just as formidable as the differences. As far as you look at the differences, I’m not sure how many there are.”
Newton and Kaepernick were roommates at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
There, the two got to know each other well, but both admit they haven’t kept in touch since then. They meet again Sunday, though they followed very different career paths.
Newton went to three colleges before leaving Auburn after his junior year for the draft and becoming the Panthers’ franchise quarterback.
Kaepernick, who is 18 months older than Newton, spent five years at the University of Nevada. He was the starter for the Wolf Pack for four years under coach Chris Ault and his famous Pistol offense, leaving the school after exhausting his eligibility and being drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft.
In San Francisco in 2011, Kaepernick was the backup quarterback to Alex Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick, and was able to sit back and learn how to be a quarterback in the NFL – both on and off the field – before 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh named Kaepernick the started in Week 11 of the 2012 season.
Newton wasn’t afforded that chance. From the moment he was selected in that April’s draft, Newton, then 21, was the biggest name on the Carolina Panthers’ roster.
“Cam never had an opportunity to learn what not to do in the NFL,” former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said last week before the Panthers’ victory over the Atlanta Falcons. “One year of college, dominate, come in the NFL and break every record as a rookie. And last year he had some bumps in the road, but he never had an opportunity to learn what not to do, be it an interview or watching somebody else.
“I think last year was a huge learning year for him and he’s playing fantastic.”
Those bumps included Newton being standoffish to his teammates in the locker room and sometimes lifting weights by himself, and some brooding post-game interviews after losses.
This offseason, Newton said, he took a look at film from his sideline demeanor and how he conducted himself in interviews. The frustrated sighs that once dotted his interviews are gone, and he seems more interactive with teammates.
“I’m not going to make a big thing about it,” Newton said when asked about his maturation this year. “My job is to come in with the attitude to make myself better as much as possible.
“Yeah, I’ve been playing great, but I think the defense has been playing greater. We’ve had good field position, and that’s a tribute to how our defense has been playing as well as our special teams.”
When the 49ers began the season 1-2 and combined for 10 points in their two losses, Kaepernick dealt with the most vicious criticism of his young NFL career.
He took to Twitter, where he favorited critical – and vulgar – tweets that called out his poor play. San Francisco played St. Louis the following week, and in a teleconference with St. Louis media Kaepernick answered nine questions in 86 words.
Now the 49ers have won five straight, but Kaepernick was no more expansive this week for Charlotte media.
“For us, we just had to keep working,” he said of overcoming early-season struggles. “We had to get back to being ourselves.”
Said Harbaugh, equally as terse, on his quarterback’s maturation: “It’s been very good. Plus-plus in all regards as a quarterback.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between Newton and Kaepernick can be found on Google Images.
Of the first 20 most-searched images that appear of Newton, 10 have him in dress clothes, and the other 10 are of him in some type of football apparel. Of Kaepernick’s first 20 images, 13 are of him either shirtless or nude.
Kaepernick has a large portion of his upper body tattooed, with most having some Biblical or spiritual theme. As he rose to national celebrity, his tattoos became a divisive topic, but he never waved from embracing them. This summer, he posed for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue.
“I think, one, it’s just becoming mainstream, believe it or not,” said Mike Boykin, executive vice president of sports marketing for GMR Marketing in Charlotte, on Kaepernick’s image. “I believe he’s genuine and authentic to who he is and that’s going to be extremely relevant to young fans. And then fans that maybe wouldn’t like that look that are 49ers fans or football fans and enjoy the way he plays, he gets a little bit of a hall pass there.
“There are some brands that may not choose to align themselves with Colin, but I think there are more brands that like what they see and realize what they can do for their brand.”
Meanwhile, Newton is one of the few professional athletes who has his own clothing line. He says he’s clean-shaven because he can’t grow facial hair, and that he doesn’t want a tattoo.
“Winning negates a lot of things,” Newton said. “If you’re a crazy guy or you party a lot and you find yourself in the playoffs a lot, a lot of that is swept under the rug. If you’re a crazy guy or you party a lot or you have a lot of tattoos and you’re not winning, then you have ‘conduct detrimental to the team,’ and you’re not focused on what you have to do.
“Or you could be a clean-cut guy and you don’t win, so you’re not the answer.
“It’s kind of funny how much winning allows you to get by with a lot of things.”
From April 1 to Sept. 30, Kaepernick had the best-selling jersey at the NFL’s official online store. Newton, for the first time in his career, was not in the top 25.
Still, both are highly marketable.
Newton has endorsements with Belk, Beats by Dre, Under Armour and Gatorade. His Superman pose is copied by players at all levels and imitated by opponents nearly every game.
Kaepernick has endorsements with Jaguar, MusclePharm, MoGo (a flavored mouthguard company), and he was recently featured in a McDonald’s commercial. His marketing agent told Forbes this year that they laid low while Kaepernick became a household name in hopes of building a worthwhile, long-term portfolio. His “Kaepernicking” pose – where he bends his head down, flexes his right arm and kisses his biceps – has similarly been imitated by opponents and copied by the likes of Michelle Obama.
Asked which player is more marketable, Boykin picked Kaepernick.
“You have to say Colin because of the success of the franchise, the history, the success of the team last year, obviously the market size,” he said. “There are a lot of factors that play in Colin’s favor. If Cam and the Panthers continue to have the success they’re having, I truly believe that he has the ‘It’ factor and can be a national star.
“He has everything that football fans like: strong, big arm, highly competitive, intense, attractive. He’s got everything. Now it just needs to happen on the field and I think everything else will follow.”
‘Both really great’
The threat of running the football gives both quarterbacks an added dimension to their games.
Last year Newton averaged eight rushes for 46 yards per game, but those numbers have tapered off this season to about seven carries per game for 31 yards.
Kaepernick’s stats since becoming the starter last season are about the same. He still averages six carries a game for 36 yards.
But despite both quarterbacks operating in zone-read offenses, the styles of those offenses differ.
Rivera says the Panthers are more of a one-back, one-tight end offense, and this season Carolina has 261 rushes and 261 pass attempts.
The 49ers lead the NFL in rushing yards per game at 153 behind Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore, but are last in the league in average passing yards (189.9).
“Within the running game, when you have a guy like Cam, you want to always have the threat for him to run the football and to have defenses have to account for that,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “But you don’t want him to be your lead rusher, so to speak, or his career’s probably not going to be very long.
“We don’t necessarily strive to be balanced in every game. We’re going to do what we think it takes ... based on the defense we play, the personnel we have and what’s working.”
As Newton and Kaepernick duel in what could be the marquee game of Week 10, Harbaugh said there’s only on similarity that matters.
“I think they’re both really great,” Harbaugh said. “I think you can really just leave it right there, that’s all the comparison that needs to be made. They’re both great.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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