KAPOLEI, Hawaii Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is playing football again Sunday night.
Last week he couldn’t even watch it.
Newton went to church in his Atlanta hometown last Sunday and found ways to pass the time later in the day when FOX was broadcasting the NFC Championship Game between Seattle and San Francisco.
Newton saw highlights of Seattle’s win over the 49ers, who knocked the Panthers out of the playoffs with a 23-10 victory in a divisional-round game Jan. 12. But he didn’t watch the NFC title game live.
“It was hard. I was salty, and still am to a degree,” Newton said. “There’s been times when I didn’t even come out of the house, didn’t want to come out of the house. Didn’t want to watch ESPN, didn’t focus on the game that they played because it wasn’t important to me.
“But having that same taste in my mouth will be the driving force to my preparation in the offseason.”
Newton’s offseason will begin following the revamped Pro Bowl on Sunday night at Aloha Stadium. Newton, playing for Deion Sanders’ team in the unconferenced format, will oppose the Panthers’ coaches, who are working with Jerry Rice’s team.
Newton threw three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, and had a miserable day in the AFC’s 59-41 win in the 2012 Pro Bowl. The poor quality of play and lackluster effort in that game led to this year’s changes, which included a fantasy football-style draft and a couple of rules tweaks aimed at making it more competitive.
Several Panthers coaches and players said this week Newton has matured since his first Pro Bowl appearance. Newton’s aloof attitude in Hawaii two years ago angered several veteran players and prompted them to turn up their intensity when Newton was in the game, according to cbssports.com report in 2012.
Newton’s maturity in his third season, his coaches said, showed in the extra hours he spent studying film and going over the game plan – a commitment that resulted in the most complete season of Newton’s career and the Panthers’ best finish in five years.
As Newton grows more confident as a passer and more comfortable in his adopted Charlotte hometown, the Panthers must decide this offseason whether to sign him to a long-term contract extension or exercise their club option on him for 2015.
In an interview with the Observer on Friday before a Pro Bowl practice, Newton declined to discuss contract particulars but said it’s every player’s dream to spend his career with one organization.
“We all want to have that magical story to say, I played with one team and we won Super Bowls and this and that. But as a person, as a player, you’d be a fool not to seize the moment that you have,” Newton said. “Right now I’m with the Carolina Panthers. I will solely commit to being a Panther and being the best Panther that I can possibly be. And we’ll let the years take care of itself.”
Comfortable in Charlotte
Most mornings during the season, Newton walks from his uptown condo to Bank of America Stadium. Listening to music on his Beats by Dre, Newton said his morning commute gives him a chance to clear his head and admire Charlotte’s clean streets.
Newton said he would walk to the stadium in the dark and often leave in the dark in the evenings, which team sources said was not always the case his first two years.
When Panthers quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey’s wife and children would come to the stadium for dinner on Tuesdays – the players’ day off – Dorsey said he often found Newton and backup quarterback Derek Anderson in the film room as late as 8 p.m.
Dorsey, a former pro scout for the Panthers, joined the coaching staff last year when quarterbacks coach Mike Shula was promoted to offensive coordinator. Rivera interviewed two external candidates – Hue Jackson and Pat Shurmur – when former coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become Cleveland’s coach.
But Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman ultimately decided continuity would be best for Newton.
“That was the nice part of the coordinating change – the system didn’t change,” Dorsey said this week in Hawaii. “We did some different things in terms of the terminology. But he was comfortable in the system. It didn’t change, so you could put a little bit more on his shoulders.”
Dorsey and Shula wanted Newton to be better going through all his reads and route progressions, and gave him more opportunities to audible in the run and pass games.
Newton passed for a career-low 3,379 yards in Shula’s ball-control system, but established career highs in completion percentage (61.7), passer rating (88.8) and touchdown passes (24).
Asked for a play that illustrated Newton’s development, Dorsey pointed to Newton’s 79-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell at Minnesota in Week 6. Newton went through his frontside reads before finding a wide-open LaFell along the sideline on the backside.
Rivera said Newton’s ability to protect the ball helped the Panthers sustain drives and finish as one of the league leaders in time of possession. Despite getting sacked a career-high 43 times, Newton had just three fumbles, losing one.
Newton’s 13 interceptions – many of which came on passes that sailed over receivers – were one more than his 2012 total.
Dorsey grades Newton in three areas every game – decision-making, footwork and throws. Dorsey said there were a few games Newton was nearly perfect in his decisions.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who will make his eighth Pro Bowl appearance Sunday night, said he saw a more complete quarterback the two times the Saints faced Newton this season.
“Playing against him this year, I think you could definitely see him developing. He’s only going to get better,” Brees said. “Like any young player, there’s growing pains along the way. He’s always been able to make plays. But now I just think you see a level of consistency that’s pretty impressive.”
'A great pro' at Pro Bowl
By all appearances, Newton seems to be soaking up his second Pro Bowl. Whether it was hamming it up with Sanders during the NFL Network's coverage of the draft Wednesday night or joking with Arizona Cardinals linebacker John Abraham about a photo bomb, Newton said he has enjoyed his week in Hawaii.
Newton didn't want to discuss the 2012 game or what caused him to become a target for AFC defenders when he came in for the second half. But Panthers center Ryan Kalil, who also played in the Pro Bowl two years ago, said there was a noticeable shift in tempo when Newton was behind center.
"For whatever reason, I don't know. I'm just saying the tempo changed drastically when he came in the game," Kalil said. "And also when he came in the game, the crowd cheered louder than when anybody else was in that game."
Kalil has been one of the most popular players on Oahu the past week, drawing screams from autograph-seeking fans lined up along the fences following practices.
Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who is coaching Sanders' team, said Newton has been a "great pro" from the first meeting this week, when Newton stayed after to familiarize himself with the Colts' offense.
"He sat there and went through every single call and every single play and put it in his own terminology. So he was the last one to leave the meeting," Pagano said. "Everybody else was out of there in 30-35 minutes. And I'm still sitting there waiting, watching him go through the playbook."
Newton called the Pro Bowl a great opportunity, but made it clear he would have traded the week in Hawaii to be in New York for the Super Bowl.
"Any time you get elected to be one of the league's best, there's no crying about that," he said. "We all know what the ultimate goal is, and we're just going to strive for that next year."
In a news conference two days after the Panthers’ season ended with the loss to San Francisco, Gettleman called Newton the team’s franchise quarterback. But Gettleman didn’t detail which path the team will take to keep their franchise quarterback under contract for the foreseeable future.
As the first No. 1 pick under the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011, Newton signed a 4-year, $22 million deal worth less than half of what St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford received in guaranteed money ($50 million) as the first overall pick the previous year.
With team owners tired of giving rich deals to rookies before they’d played an NFL snap, the new CBA was designed to reward first-round picks after they’d proven themselves.
Rookie deals that had been a maximum of six years in the former agreement were reduced to four years for first-rounders.
For the first time under the new CBA, teams can begin negotiating with their 2011 picks on extensions this offseason, and have until May 3 to exercise the fifth-year club option on the first-rounders.
According to a report by Jason Cole on National Football Post last week, there is a belief among some team executives that clubs will use the 2015 options as a more economical way to keep Newton, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green and other first-round picks from 2011 under contract.
“That’s not something I’ve read into, and it’s especially not something I’m worried about,” Newton said. “My job, my sole focus, is trying to become the best football player that I can become.”
Newton said he had not heard Gettleman’s recent “franchise quarterback” comment, but was glad to know the team has trust in him.
“With them having faith in me, that just means the world to me,” he said. “But it puts a lot of responsibility in my court as well. I’m ready and able to accept the challenge.”
Dorsey said there’s no questioning Newton’s will to win.
“He puts so much into helping the team and helping the whole region. He wants the team to be successful. He wants it more than anything,” Dorsey said. “That’s something I learn more and more being around him, he puts just so much into it. It means a ton to him.”
That’s why the playoff loss pained Newton, or as he put it, left him salty and in no mood to invest three hours watching to see whether San Francisco or Seattle would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
After the one-and-done postseason, Newton said the next goal is sustained success.
“I hope so. That’s the plan,” Newton said. “Just knowing or having that feel, the home-field advantage for that one game, consistent wins, learning how to win in the fourth quarter, finishing teams. ... We haven’t had back-to-back playoff appearances, and that’s going to be our challenge this year.”
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