Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton walked slowly to the podium – his left foot encased in a protective boot – smiled and told reporters he was glad to be there.
Newton spent the next 15 minutes putting a good face on what’s been an eventful offseason for him and the team’s wide receiver corps.
Newton said he’s recovering at a “rapid pace” from March 19 surgery to tighten the ligaments in his ankle. Newton’s surgery came six days after the release of Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time receiving leader who was cut after 13 seasons in Charlotte.
Newton said he was surprised when he learned the Panthers planned to let Smith go.
“Did it catch me by surprise? It caught all of us – if you were in the 704 region, you were caught by surprise,” Newton said Tuesday at Bank of America Stadium. “Everybody in the Carolinas was surprised, including myself.”
Newton said he still talks with Smith and wished him well with the Baltimore Ravens, who host the Panthers in a regular-season game this year. Smith encouraged fans to wear goggles “because there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere.”
“Hopefully when we do play the Baltimore Ravens it will be guts and – whatever he said – everywhere on both sides,” Newton said. “We all understand who Steve Smith was and what he brought to this community, to this organization. And it was a hard-nosed mentality. He has taught a lot of players under him, including myself, the attitude (of) don’t take nothing for granted.”
In addition to Smith, the Panthers lost three other receivers in free agency – Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. To replace them, they signed Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, none of whom is considered a No. 1 receiver.
Though Newton won’t be on the field with the group until training camp, he said he has “plenty of time” to develop chemistry. He met with the new receivers for the first time Monday, when the Panthers began their offseason program.
“We had a great talk. A lot was said, a lot was given, a lot was taken,” Newton said. “No matter who or what the receivers look like, this is a team game. We all are (aware of) what has been done this offseason as far as acquisitions and trades and releases. But the fact is we have our team right now.”
But the team will take on a different look following next month’s draft. Newton said he hopes the Panthers will draft a receiver or offensive player with their first-round pick, but only if it’s the right player.
“There’s a lot of talented receivers, a lot of talented tackles, a lot of talented players in this draft,” Newton said. “But one thing I have learned in the three years I’ve been in this league is you can have all the talent in the world. But if you’re not willing to work and help the team and humble yourself first, all that talent can go to waste.”
Smith was released in part to turn over the team’s leadership to younger players, principally Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Newton, voted as a team captain for the first time last season, said he plans to take on more “ownership of the offense” and step up as a team leader. But Newton said there will be other leaders, mentioning center Ryan Kalil, defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and linebackers Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Kalil praised Newton’s willingness to work and said the quarterback’s smile and engaging personality are genuine.
“The thing you like about it is it’s sincere, it’s not something he puts on for a show. I’ve played with guys who turn it on and off and put on a show and they know when the cameras are on,” Kalil said. “The way you see him in his interviews and how he talks, is the same way he is in the locker room behind the scenes.”
Newton said the goal for a franchise that has never had back-to-back winning seasons will be returning to the playoffs.
“That’s the biggest challenge of them all. We understand that, we know that,” Newton said. “The rabbit has already gone and he’s running so we’re trying to catch up to that right now.”
Newton declined to give a specific date for when he expects to begin throwing, but the original, four-month recovery timetable would have him back for the start of training camp. Newton does not expect to have any restrictions when he returns, and does not plan to wear an ankle brace.
In the meantime, Newton will continue traveling between Charlotte and Auburn, where he is enrolled in classes for the second consecutive spring.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said last month he plans to exercise the team’s fifth-year option on Newton, which would keep him under contract through 2015 at a salary of $14.67 million for that season. The team has until May 3 to pick up the option.
Newton said he leaves those matters to his agent. Between taking classes, rehabbing his ankle and getting to know the new receiving corps, the fourth-year player has enough other things to worry about.
But mostly Newton said he is looking forward to playing on a left ankle he said hasn’t been healthy for a long time.
“There was a lot of compensation on my part. I really didn’t know what 100 percent felt like. I was dealing with the pain without any anti-inflammatory (drugs), or painkillers or anything. I was just going out there and playing,” he said.
“It’s scary to know that it would be a significant difference moving forward. But it’s not going to happen by itself. With the right therapy, with the right things you do on a day-to-day basis, it will get back at 100 percent.”