Cam Newton ruminated on the start of another training camp, rubbing his chin.
This is Newton’s fifth training camp, and the Panthers’ franchise quarterback’s Friday epiphany that he’s become an NFL veteran nearly surprised him.
He has been the unquestioned leader of Carolina’s offense since Steve Smith’s departure, and he knows that’s part of being a franchise quarterback in the NFL.
He says he knows he has to be a leader. But if he’s going to be any kind of leader, it’ll be a fun one.
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“When people think about quarterbacks, that’s probably the only position in all of sports that has that default, ‘You’re a leader,’ whether you want it or not,” Newton said.
“I’m feeling comfortable more and more. I pride myself on my leadership, and being something I naturally am.
“I’m not doing things that are changing, flipping a switch and saying, ‘OK, I’ve got to go into Leader Cam,’ or ‘I’ve got to go into Playful Cam.’ No, those are things I want to do.”
That’s probably the only position in all of sports that has that default, ‘You’re a leader,’ whether you want it or not.
Cam Newton, on the responsibility of playing quarterback in the NFL
Anyone who has seen Newton, 26, since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2011 has seen Playful Cam. He’s the one who makes himself into an airplane as he runs onto the field or imitates a jump shot with backup quarterback Derek Anderson after a touchdown.
Anyone who has been in a huddle with Newton knows Leader Cam. That Cam that looks the other 10 players in the eye before calling the first play, or gets on a receiver in practice for not breaking a route the correct way.
But it’s not Jekyll and Hyde. The two Cams merge to make Newton who he is. This year, both Newton and the team seem comfortable with that.
A leader, in steps
When scouting Newton before the 2011 draft, the Panthers found him consistent in how he treated people, from the star receiver to the freshman walk-on the same.
Newton made them both work.
“He would call the wideouts on Saturday mornings and get them out of bed and say we need to go throw,” former Auburn coach Gene Chizik told the Observer in April. “At first they were a little bit resistant to it, and he was very adamant and persistent to make sure they were spending the extra time to do it.
“They hadn’t done a whole lot of that. He was the guy who rallied the troops and said, ‘Meet me over there. I’m going to be there whether you are or not.’
“And they started to do that.”
That leadership – and the success at Auburn – didn’t immediately translate to the NFL.
It took Newton three years before he had a winning record as a starting quarterback. And early in his career, his sideline sulking became part of his national identity.
As long as I’m on this team. I’m going to make the difference.
Cam Newton, on how he plans to lead the Carolina Panthers
But Newton has grown, and the team along with him, although the process has required shedding some old skin.
First came the release of Smith, a franchise icon and the team’s all-time leading receiver, in the 2014 offseason. The Panthers followed that by releasing their all-time leading rusher, DeAngelo Williams, after last season.
Those moves and others by Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman identified the core of the team. He re-signed Newton, tight end Greg Olsen and linebacker Thomas Davis.
Newton has embraced his leadership role. He earned his captain’s patch before the 2014 season and immediately forged a relationship with first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
He began spending more time with teammates, often playing the NBA2K video game, initially as the Portland Trail Blazers before later switching to the Phoenix Suns.
In the offseason, the Panthers’ offense keeps in touch via an active text message group chat.
All that has brought the group closer.
“I can see, God willing it never happens, but if we split up I can see us getting back up (in the offseason) and doing what we do,” second-year receiver Corey Brown said, “Just being us.”
“For us, it’s a lot of guys that we know – the vibe in the locker room is changing in a good way,” Newton said. “And I’m not taking shots at anybody. We’ve got guys who are playing for each other, know their role.”
And Newton clearly defines his role.
“As long as I’m on this team,” he said, “I’m going to make the difference.”
Workouts in Baltimore
Newton did that in the offseason.
Before last season he had followed Smith’s plan, taking his receivers to assistant coach Ricky Proehl’s facility in Greensboro for three days of workouts.
This summer, he followed his own path. He paid the expenses – travel, food, lodging – for several of his receivers to a stay in Baltimore. He was there with teammates for 2 1/2 weeks in July, working on chemistry on and off the field.
For everybody to live under the same roof, eat the same, go out, talk and just chill and appreciate each other’s company just made the whole vibe great.
Cam Newton, on his workouts with Panthers receivers in Baltimore
Greg Olsen, Devin Funchess, Damiere Byrd, Brenton Bersin and Stephen Hill were among the receivers who made the trip for at least a few days.
“It was great team kinship,” Newton said Friday at Wofford. “Guys seeing the realness in each other.
“For everybody to live under the same roof, eat the same, go out, talk and just chill and appreciate each other’s company just made the whole vibe great.”
But it wasn’t all fun. The group added high-intensity conditioning at the Under Armour Performance Center to their on-field work. In those workouts, Newton always tried to beat the guy next to him, trainer Nate Costa said.
“He’ll say, ‘I know it doesn’t feel good. Your body is saying no and I need your mind to say yes,’” Costa said. “When you overcome that ... those things translate.”
And after making his call to arms, Newton would then slip back into rapping whatever song was on the speakers and freestyling his own lyrics.
“It’s really, really cool to see and it’s really natural,” Costa said. “I don’t know if it could be any other way, like let me put my leader hat on or my joking hat.
“It’s just who he is.”
Who Newton is doesn’t just include the preparation time with his teammates.
Last weekend, rather than cruising through the final days before reporting to camp on Thursday, Newton traveled back to Baltimore by himself.
He trained Monday through Wednesday before coming back to Charlotte and, eventually, Spartanburg.
Once he arrived at camp, he put the two Cams on display.
At Friday night’s practice Newton examined the defense during 11-on-11 practice after calling a play-action pass play in the huddle.
He sensed the defense knew what was coming, so he called a dummy call at the line that would sucker the defense into thinking it was a run.
Newton sold the fake to the running back, rolled right and launched a 50-plus-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery.
The Panthers have been giving Newton more latitude on changing plays at the line in the past year and a half as Newton has matured on the field.
The team has also listened to Newton in the meeting room.
“He’s had really, really good suggestions in tying what we do together,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said.
“We’re giving him more freedom in that regard. And we will continue to do that. It’s not like he’s going to call every play. But it’s little subtleties.”
The subtleties seem to be everywhere.
During the stretching period before practice began, the popular dance song “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” played in Gibbs Stadium. Newton danced to the song’s instructions between arm and calf exercises.
Later, he went to the sideline and motioned to different sections of the crowd, trying to get them to out-cheer the others.
At one point, Newton turned his back to the stands before quickly twirling back around and asking one more section to cheer.
Then he jogged back onto the field.
It was time to go to work.