“Nobody wants to be around the losing,” Newton said last week. “It’s kind of like a disease.”
Newton is a professional now, a multimillionaire and the man an organization is trusting as its leader. Professionals face certain expectations; one of those is that, regardless of losing’s unpleasantness, any behavior similar to a 7-year-old’s is unacceptable.
“Being a quarterback is like getting a loan on a car. There’s fine print,” said Smith, the Panthers’ best wide receiver. “. . . There’s a responsibility, which isn’t fair, but it’s there.”
Smith has confronted his quarterback about his attitude. He knows how destructive — and contagious — a poor outlook can be. Smith himself had to curb bad habits early in his career, with the help of an older teammate, Ricky Proehl.
“I know the mistakes I’ve made,” Smith, 33, said, “and so I’m trying to help a guy not go down the same path.”
Smith said it would be easy to allow a young player to simply wallow in his own disappointments and learn the right way on his own. But Smith said that’s not in his personality. When Newton wandered around the locker room with a dazed expression Wednesday, Smith used a towel to lightly smack his quarterback’s hind parts.
“You can’t allow passive people to be passive,” Smith said.
The project is a work in progress. Newton indicated that he’s unsure how to behave; uncertain of who he’s supposed to be. The same player who declared before last year’s draft that he saw himself not only as a football player but also an “entertainer and an icon,” now seems smothered by the enormity of those expectations.
“At some points and some times in an athlete’s career,” Newton said, “you feel sometimes that you’re in a lose-lose situation. When you pour your heart out and you tell it how it is, then you get condemned.”
Smith said he’ll keep working on his quarterback, and maybe, eventually, Newton will realize that unchecked emotion can undermine physical gifts, no matter how impressive. Smith said there’s nothing in it for him; he’s nearing the end of his career. But the only team he has played for has plenty at stake.
“I would love to see, when I’m done playing, when I’m sitting on the couch, when I’m an official fan, when I’m watching them with my boys — look at Cam,” Smith said. “Look at that man. Not the football player. The man. That’s what’s important to me.”
The spotlight shifts
Another quarterback stood facing questions in Ashburn the week before last, this one in the same lighthearted way he plays, interacts with teammates and strangers, and seems to live life in general. When Griffin enters the Redskins locker room, he sometimes skips across the carpet, or playfully bumps into a teammate, or fiddles with the music player — usually with a grin to follow.
“Body language is a big tell-all for football players,” Griffin said.
There’s little doubt that Griffin will, at some point, be asked to evolve as a player, that he will be challenged to change. Defenses certainly will work to slow him, and because Griffin is three inches shorter and nearly 20 pounds lighter than Newton, staying in the pocket and finding open receivers downfield — a skill that still needs development, according to one coach who has studied him — could become a priority more quickly.
Griffin will have to prove himself physically, but he seems determined to avoid emotional highs and lows. He seems to realize that leaders and franchise players are constantly being watched.
“You don’t want to get way too excited and then be holly-jolly, then be super down after a loss,” he said. “You stay even-keeled and let guys know you feel like you’re doing the right things as a team and eventually those wins are going to start coming.
“You just stay at it. You’re not lackadaisical about it at all; you do have a sense of urgency, but you’re not panicking.”
Maybe that’s easy for a rookie to say. Or maybe it’s just maturity. Newton, last year’s phenomenon, offered advice for Griffin. They are words perhaps learned the hard way.
“Of course he’s had a lot of success,” Newton said, “and I hope for him the best, and each and every quarterback that’s out there, young quarterback, so my words to him would be to just keep playing, and keep playing with confidence.”
After a pause, he continued, his voice still monotonal but his tone direct. He said this is what he wishes he could tell himself a year ago.
“Keep playing,” he said. “That’s about it. Keep playing.”