Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was grinning at the podium in Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.
He and Captain Munnerlyn, the team’s 30-year-old nickel cornerback, have found themselves engaged in a wager this preseason that began during training camp.
“I’m not sure if you know the backstory about Captain Munnerlyn, but he’s a betting man,” Newton said. “Anything. I’m talkin’, ‘Is it gonna rain next week?’ ”
So Munnerlyn was challenged to meet Newton each morning (usually before the sun came up) at the team’s workout facilities, and walk in with him. A teammate, who Newton kept anonymous, had watched the early morning workout videos, usually cardio training, that Newton had been posting on his Instagram stories throughout the offseason.
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“The bet (for Munnerlyn) was ‘I bet you can’t wake up with Cam and walk with him every morning into training camp,’ ” Newton said.
Of course, Munnerlyn bet he could absolutely do that.
“And as we’re going, day after day after day, I’m surprised just to keep seeing Lil’ Cap walk into this locker room,” Newton laughed. “He’s always going to complain, but he’s always going to do it, too.”
The walk turned into cardio, which turned into a competition between the two with plenty of smack-talk.
“I’ve noticed there’s a challenge to see who gets there first, and who gets started first,” coach Ron Rivera said. “And then they kind of harass each other.”
But neither is giving the other any ground.
“First week goes by, second week goes by. Cap is still there,” Newton said. “And now two months in, he’s beating me to the treadmill and it’s kind of a challenge for me to kind of see him.”
Newton said the early sessions are therapeutic.
“It’s waking yourself up. Getting your legs up under you,” he said.
It’s clear that Newton is happy. And he said so himself, on Wednesday.
That’s not just the endorphins from the cardio talking.
He said he feels a “great energy” from the team and around the city of Charlotte as the Panthers’ season opener against Dallas approaches.
It’s because he missed football, and he gets it back for real on Sunday.
“I miss running out of the tunnel,” he said. “I miss scoring touchdowns, Sunday giveaways. That feeling of Victory Mondays, followed by going around different areas of Charlotte and people are wearing their Carolina gear. That feeling is contagious.”
A new start
Sunday will be the first look at the full iteration of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system.
Throughout training camp and the preseason, players have used the same word to describe Turner’s offense: efficient.
In head coach Ron Rivera’s mind, that means the the Panthers want to distribute the ball well among their offensive playmakers.
But it’s the timing of the distribution that matters just as much as the target.
“I had the great fortune to work with (Turner) in San Diego (as his defensive coordinator),” Rivera said. “We watched the way he called games, and I really appreciated it. Because he does look for the hot hand. He looks for the guys that are trending. He gets the ball into their hands so that he can make things happen.
“I was there when (former Chargers running back) LaDanian Tomlinson was there. I saw the greatness of (him) through a guy who didn’t get the ball every play. (But) he got the ball at the right times, and he made hay with it.”
Timing and efficiency will matter for Newton, too. He said he wants to get his completion percentage up to between 65-70 percent this season. Turner’s offense will keep the qualities at which Newton excels — the deep ball, the read-option — but has installed multiple underneath-route passing options, including checkdowns to secondary receivers, that will likely help with that.
But being healthy helps, too.
Newton is entering his eighth season, but he said he feels like a rookie.
“I’m always in the best shape of my life. Always,” he said. “A person once told me, ‘There are two types of players that play in the NFL: There are football players, and there are professional football players.’
“Football players are those guys who wake up and think that things just happen. And professional football players are the guys who wake up and make things happen.
“Know that nothing starts, and everything stops, at your body. So being able to take care of your body from treatment to cardiovascular activities, all are things I need to keep myself going.”
A ‘first’ for No. 1
Newton got his first-ever noninjury day off, a “veteran” day usually awarded to the older players, this spring.
He hated it.
“You could see it just kind of grind in his gut,” Rivera said. “He would watch something happen, and you could see him thinking through it. You could tell he missed it, even though it was just practice. He wanted to be out there.”
Missing a day with this particular football team might have felt like missing out on a lot.
After spending the entirety of the last offseason and preseason recovering from shoulder surgery, Newton is healthy. He likes the roster. He also seems to enjoy being around Turner.
“Everybody has a standard that has to be met by (Turner’s) likeness,” Newton said. “He understands the talent pool. And if you’re underachieving where you’re supposed to be, then he’s going to expect (the standard) from you. Not saying we haven’t had that before, every coach is different and every coach has their niche.
“(But) Norv has been around this league for an extremely long time. And for him to have the type of caliber players, he knows a thing or two about how to get guys going.”
Between Turner, a healthy Newton and the team’s added playmakers, this roster has the feel of one brimming with potential.
That is a precarious position, according to Rivera.
“That’s a scary word in the NFL,” said Rivera. “Because you gotta live up to your potential now.”
“We don’t know what we have yet,” he said. “That’s why Sunday is so important. ... Before we start foreshadowing things, and kind of expecting things, you know ‘you said this’ or ‘that said what,’ we’re all just trying to focus on winning football games. And as that comes, a lot of things will show (their) hand.”