What started as back-and-forth jawing during the first practice of training camp boiled over Monday morning into a fight between Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman and Cam Newton, the franchise’s $103 million quarterback.
The two came to blows after Norman intercepted Newton during team drills, then stiff-armed Newton as he approached the end zone. Newton grabbed Norman’s helmet and started yelling at him, and Norman responded by knocking Newton’s helmet off.
The two ended up on ground as about a dozen teammates ran toward the end zone and eventually separated them.
“Hit me like that again, I know something!” Newton screamed at Norman.
The two kept it up even as backup quarterback Derek Anderson took over the offense.
“I bet you won’t do it again,” Newton hollered back as he went to the sideline.
Norman and Newton exchanged words several times during the first eight training camp sessions, most recently Sunday after Norman laid out to intercept a long bomb by Newton.
Neither player spoke to the media after Monday’s incident, leaving coaches and teammates to address the most tense moment of camp.
The irony is Monday’s practice began with Panthers coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator ripping into the defense for a lack of intensity. They got more than they hoped for, with the Newton-Norman fight leading to several other dust-ups.
“It’s really that time of year. Guys get into training camp and it’s usually (practice) nine or 10 and that’s kind of what happened,” Rivera said. “You really don’t expect it to be your quarterback. But the thing I try to take away from it, and you try to look for the positive in it, is hey, he stood up for himself, the other guy stood up for himself. I know it’s the quarterback but we treat everybody the same.
“I wasn’t pleased about the fight. I wasn’t pleased about who was in the fight but again I understand it. Again, I think the thing that a lot of the guys took from it was he’s just like any of us. He’s willing to fight.”
Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman spoke to Norman after practice. Rivera later called the team up, and Newton made some brief remarks while players took a knee.
Rivera said Newton told his teammates they’re all a family.
Panthers offensive tackle Nate Chandler was one of the first players to start pulling teammates off the pile.
“Your quarterback gets in a fight. You don’t want anyone, especially when his helmet’s not on, taking a shot at him,” Chandler said. “That’s our quarterback. We’ve got to protect him. I was just trying to get guys off him.”
But center Ryan Kalil didn’t seem too concerned about the injury risk for Newton, who missed the first two games of his NFL career in 2014, one after cracking his ribs in an exhibition, another after crashing his truck in December.
“I don’t really worry about Cam. I’ve seen him to do a lot more dumb things than that,” Kalil said. “He’s a big kid. He plays quarterback, but he looks like a big D-end.”
Kalil said he was referring to Newton playing knockerball, in which players wear large, plastic balls and run into each other, at his charity kickball event in June.
McDermott said the altercation grew out of competitive fires.
“We’d rather have that than guys out here just going through the motions, playing pattycake,” McDermott said. “They’re challenging one another, they’re both competing and they’re bringing out the best in one another.”
McDermott shook hands with Newton and had a few words for him following practice.
“Number one, mutual respect. We’re all Panthers, right?” McDermott said. “And I told him, ‘Hey, keep challenging him.’ That’s what we need. Iron sharpens iron.”
The NFL plans to crack down on fighting this year following several fracases last season, including one between the Seahawks and Patriots on the penultimate play of the Super Bowl.
Kalil said the Panthers can’t afford to lose their cool during games, and alluded to the playoff loss to San Francisco two seasons ago that included several unsportsmanlike penalties by Carolina defensive backs.
“It’s just a little training camp tiff. But those are the kind of guys you want on your team, guys that don’t back down,” Kalil said. “But at the same time we’ve got to keep our composure. Obviously, if it happens at practice it’s OK as long as nobody gets hurt.
“But we can’t have that in a game situation. That’s something we’ve got to do a better job of. That’s hurt us before in the past, especially playoff football.”
Rivera said he’s not worried about Newton and Norman resuming the fight in the Wofford dorms.
“As Cam said, there’s enough quality leadership on this football team that we know how to end things,” Rivera said. “Guys like Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen, Charles Johnson, those guys know how to handle these situations and circumstances and shut it down.”
Rivera also said he did not view the fight as an indictment of Newton’s leadership skills.
And when asked if he’d ever seen a quarterback fight with a teammate, Rivera, a former linebacker for the Chicago Bears, smiled and said, “Remember, I played with Jim McMahon.”
Staff writer Jonathan Jones contributed.