ONLY DESULTORY images linger from Cam Newton's 2012 season: the quarterback sitting under a towel, dejected on the bench, or going through a postgame press conference looking like he'd just been dumped. Meanwhile, the Panthers' season quickly slipped away with a 2--8 start.
By then the public had tuned out on Carolina. What it missed was a 5--1 mark to close the season as Newton began to grow into the role of franchise quarterback. Newton is supremely talented, without question. Nobody ever doubted that the claim is supported empirically: In terms of passing yards, his first two seasons stand as the best-ever debut by an NFL quarterback.
But a lot more goes into being the leader of a franchise than talent and statistics, and as Newton and the Panthers enter a critical third season together, Newton sounds like a player who gets it.
"I think it's just the whole maturation of my position," Newton said in the hallways of Bank of America Stadium after the Panthers' exhibition opener. "For me, one thing that I have to continuously learn is to trust my teammates. I have to give those guys more opportunities to make plays and also let them know what I'm thinking."
When first-year G.M. Dave Gettleman arrived from the Giants in January, the first thing he did was pore over the game film, scrutinizing the team from 1 to 53. He didn't believe the close to the 2012 season was a fluke, especially for Newton.
"I don't think it was coincidental at all," says Gettleman, who with the Giants had watched Eli Manning take his share of criticism and then emerge a two-time Super Bowl winner. "They went to a more conventional running game. When they got back to doing what they do best—run downhill, play action—it gives [Newton] time. He's growing up. He made a large leap forward."
Newton's strong play actually stretched over the final seven games, including the loss to the Buccaneers last Nov. 18 that dropped Carolina to 2--8. And the improvement had everything to do with his taking care of the ball. Newton's completion percentage and yards per attempt were nearly identical in the first nine games and the final seven. But instead of eight touchdown passes and 13 turnovers (10 interceptions), he had 11 touchdown passes and two turnovers as the Panthers knocked off the Falcons and the Saints, among others.
"He's continued upon that path of growth that all young quarterbacks take, especially ones that came in and had such early success," says tight end Greg Olsen. "He's learning to build off that success as the team tries to get better as a unit, tries to win more games to go along with that personal success."
To keep that offensive continuity going, the Panthers promoted Mike Shula from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, filling the void left by Rob Chudzinski when he became coach of the Browns.
Coach Ron Rivera told The Charlotte Observer in July that he thinks Newton has taken more of an interest in his teammates. The guys he lines up with say he's done that all along, and they don't have any issues with Newton. "The thing I really admire about him is that he's been able to handle a lot of the criticism well," says center Ryan Kalil. "Being our leader, he's the first one to come to you and say, 'I've got to fix this, I have to do a better job.' I've played with guys who say, 'This is who I am, take it or leave it, and if you don't like it, get the hell out.' He's definitely not that guy."
Under Rivera and Newton the Panthers are 13--19. Twelve of those losses have been by seven or fewer points. Perhaps that suggests promise, but there's no getting around the franchise's four-year playoff drought. Says Gettleman, "Ron knows—we all know—we have to win. It's time for us to win."
Newton says he's ready to do his part. "It's easy for anybody, when things are not going the right way, to shut everybody out and go about it their own way," he says. "But I just have to do a better job. My teammates have been very helpful in my growth as a quarterback on this team, and I feel like it shows."
THE CASE FOR ...
Despite several key injuries (LB Jon Beason missed the season due to various ailments, CB Chris Gamble because of a shoulder issue), the Panthers finished 2012 with the NFL's No. 10 defense in yards allowed. Here's a bigger surprise: They could be better in '13. Ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson combined for 23½ sacks and nine forced fumbles last season, and now they have help in the middle from Carolina's top two draft picks, Utah's Star Lotulelei (who's been a standout in camp) and Purdue's Kawann Short. They'll also benefit from the year's experience gained by '12 free-agent addition Dwan Edwards (left), a former 3--4 end who blew up as a DT in the Panthers' 4--3 scheme. (His six sacks last season were more than his 5½ combined in seven previous seasons.) The linebacker corps is solid. In the end, the fate of this unit could rest on the patchwork secondary, which had to be filled prudently after the team ended up $16 million over the salary cap. Newbies such as journeyman CB Drayton Florence, former Bears CB D.J. Moore and SS Mike Mitchell, a reserve in Oakland, will have to demonstrate improvement. Of course, that's easier with a front seven like Carolina's.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
QB CAM NEWTON
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED