Panther Tracks

Steve Smith on Cam Newton: ‘He drives his teammates to be better’

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Former Carolina Panther Steve Smith, looking dapper in a dark charcoal suit, was a guest host on NFL Network’s pregame show Sunday morning.

Smith was asked to offer insight on his former quarterback, Cam Newton. As usual, 89 was rather insightful. He said Newton “drives his teammates to be better.”

“He makes guys around him better by what he does,” Smith said. “He can run the ball, scramble around and throw off his back foot 60, 70 yards without even looking. He just makes everybody better and makes you bring up your game. What he brings to the offense, he makes the defense play well, too. He says, ‘Hey, I’m going to make my plays. We’re going to do our job. Will you keep up with us?’ I think that just makes everyone raise their game.

“When the Carolina Panthers took him, they took a franchise quarterback to take this franchise to the next level. That’s what he’s doing. That’s what he’s done.”

Smith, now with the Baltimore Ravens, was asked if Newton is the same player now as when he came into the league five years ago and the two were teammates.

“He’s not the same guy,” Smith said. “He’s a father now. He’s a guy in his fifth year. He’s playing different. He had to learn the game, just like all of us had to learn the game. When you start to mature you start to see the game in a different light, through a different pair of lenses and that’s what happens and that’s a good thing. If he wasn’t maturing, they wouldn’t be where they are right now. He’s their franchise quarterback. Luke Kuechly is their franchise linebacker and if they continue to put guys around them and continue to make plays, they’re going to be in the hunt year after year.”

Who They’re Picking

A sampling of analysts’ picks on Panthers-Cardinals

Brian Billick, NFL Network and former Ravens coach: Carolina

Bleacher Report: Carolina

Marcus Allen, NFL Hall of Famer: Carolina

Ron Jaworski, ESPN analyst: Arizona

Keyshawn Johnson, former Panthers/ESPN analyst: Carolina

Note: A 14-member panel at ESPN submitted picks for the NFC Championship Game. Only three -- Cris Carter, Seth Wickersham and Jaworski -- picked Arizona

Say What?

Some of Sunday’s best Panthers quotes

▪ “Everything about the numbers tells you Arizona, in terms of their balance on offense. They’ve got the receivers. They’ve got the running game. Their defense is aggressive. They’ve got the corners on the back end. This is hard for me. But the physicality of Carolina puts me over the edge for Carolina.” -- NFL Network analyst and former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick

▪ “We have the fifth and sixth ranked defenses, Arizona and Carolina. I’m telling you with all that defense on the football field, this will still be a high scoring affair. It’s going to be more about offense than defense.” -- NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin (former Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner backed him up, predicting Cam Newton and Carson Palmer will combine for eight touchdowns Sunday night).

▪ “I just told the guys that if we stop the run...we can make Cam throw the ball and make him beat us with his arm. Not to say that he’s not improved in that area, because he has, but we like our chances of him throwing the ball as oppose to them having 28 (Jonathan Stewart) running all around us and having Cam run as well, that just makes it tough.” -- Arizona linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, as told to former Observer reporter D. Orlando Ledbetter, now writing for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

▪ ”The Panthers have made a habit this year of building big leads and nearly blowing them. They lost only once, but it makes you wonder how they would react if the Cardinals took a lead early. I think it could happen. This game is a pick ‘em to me. I’ll pick the Cardinals” 27-23. -- Kent Somers, writer, Arizona Republic

▪ ”Arizona is a more complete team to me than Carolina. If the weather is good and clear, and it’s expected to be, I expect Arizona to be the team to advance.” -- ESPN host Jamele Hill

Socially Speaking

The best Panthers tweets and posts

Panther Hate

An Arizona newspaper, the Phoenix New Times recently posted an article with 10 reasons to hate the Carolina Panthers. These included calling owner Jerry Richardson a sourpuss and saying Cam Newton’s dancing is just silly.

Two of the “gems” in the piece:

▪ They’re the NFL’s Biggest Bandwagon Team: (We’re quoting the Times’ article here) The Panthers attracted hordes of fair-weather fans (in the Carolinas and across the nation) with their league-best 15-1 regular-season record....Don’t worry, we’re sure the newbies all will be away when the Cardinals upend your pussycats this weekend.”

▪ The Panthers ripped off baseball’s Boston Red Sox by having a sing-a-long to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” after wins.

Panther Love

ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight website has adjusted its mathematically-based simulations to predict the remaining four NFL teams chances of winning today and winning the Super Bowl. It gives Carolina a 61 percent chance of winning today compared to 39 percent for Arizona, 59 percent for Denver and 41 percent for New England.

When it comes to winning the Super Bowl, Cam’s favorite team is again given the best chance, at 33 percent, followed by Denver (26), Arizona (22) and New England (19)

▪ On ESPN’s “Sports Reporters” Sunday morning, New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica talked about how close Carolina is to being undefeated.

“I think we’ve been selling this team short, despite their record, all year long,” he said. “I think they’re the best team in football.”

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