On this afternoon, he dumped a few things into his locker stall before a team employee escorted Newton toward his weekly news conference. As reporters entered, he glared impatiently, and when the questions began, he labored through a dull seven minutes, speaking in a monotone. This is the same player who often sits alone on the sideline, a towel draped over his head.
Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, even moped through an answer about his historic first NFL season, when he passed for a rookie-record 4,051 yards but the Panthers finished 6-10. “Far from a dream season, as I can remember,” he said.
This time last year, Newton was having the same impact that Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III is having now. Newton, like Griffin, is an athletic passer with a priceless smile who won a Heisman Trophy in college and was seen as a player who wouldn’t just become a winner in the NFL; he might change the game.
Now the Panthers are 1-6 as they prepare to face the Redskins Sunday, and one reason is that Newton no longer surprises opposing defenses. Teams prepare for him, and compared to last season, when he seemingly could do no wrong, he hardly has looked superhuman. Newton has responded with an attitude that has turned off reporters and is a concern for teammates.
“This team doesn’t have leaders,” veteran wide receiver Steve Smith said flatly when asked about Newton’s leadership.
Weeks earlier, Smith called out Newton for sulking on the sideline. After a loss last month to the Dallas Cowboys, Newton publicly called for changes and offered to install a “suggestion box” to curb the losing. Longtime General Manager Marty Hurney was fired a day later. Coach Ron Rivera said Newton, 23, hasn’t yet grasped that his words and actions are continually watched and interpreted, and seven games into his second season, Newton’s play and demeanor haven’t translated into much hope.
“I couldn’t care less,” Newton said Wednesday, “if there’s a right way to lose.”
It all begs the question: Is this just a young player showing his immaturity and inability to control his emotions, or is this a preview of the hangover the Redskins and their fans might feel if, like Newton, Griffin doesn’t change the game, but, rather, the game changes him?
The secret is out
Rivera sat in a black chair, discussing the yin and yang of a potential superstar. It’s not a short conversation, and at age 50, after years of playing linebacker for the Chicago Bears and pacing sidelines as a defensive coach, standing too long can make a man’s back hurt.
Those years also taught Rivera that a constant of the NFL is that offenses evolve. From the West Coast to the Wildcat, things change, and it’s up to men like Rivera to stop them. The process starts when the schedule is released each spring.
“As a coordinator,” he said, “you sit there and go: ‘Hey, who do you study this year?’ Well, you know, guess who we’ve got. We’ve got Peyton Manning, so circle that one.” He continues listing players who grab a defense’s attention.
A year ago, Newton and the zone-read option were mostly unknown commodities. Sure, both had worked in college, but the NFL game is different. Taking opponents by surprise, then dazzling them with a rare combination of size (Newton is 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds) and athleticism (he rushed for 1,473 yards as a junior at Auburn), Newton seemed ready to redefine his position. His 706 rushing yards as a rookie ranked better than the totals compiled by many running backs.
Newton was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year, but the downside was that his secret was out.
“In the offseason,” Rivera said, “we were probably a study.”
Defensive coaches circled the date they’d play against Newton, and in preparation found that his footwork is imperfect and that man-to-man coverage shrinks his passing windows. His versatility, so effective in 2011, could be minimized if opponents took away a part or two of Newton’s game. He’s still effective this season, but the number of big plays is down. Through seven contests in 2012, Newton had 15 total touchdowns; he has eight so far this season.
Rivera said quarterbacks must stay a step ahead of defenses, and he has seen evidence that Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is quickly trying to familiarize Griffin with advanced concepts. Athletic quarterbacks can succeed, but only those who become proficient passers emerge as the game’s best. Aaron Rodgers evolved, but Michael Vick has never become an elite passer. Whose career arc will Newton’s more closely resemble? And what about Griffin’s?
Sitting in that chair, Rivera said he knows this much: Just as defensive coaches studied and complicated things for Newton, they’ll eventually do the same for Griffin.
“Believe me,” Rivera said when asked about Griffin. “We said, ‘Oh boy, he’s what everybody thought he would be. So circle this one.’ ”
’Depends on how you look at it.’
Standing at that lectern, the only time Newton showed a glimpse of his devastating smile was when asked whether he’d voted for Griffin to win last year’s Heisman. Former winners are among those with a vote.
“Uh, that’s a personal question,” Newton said, and a moment later the smile disappeared. “But I did.”
Not long afterward, he returned to the locker room. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he truly dislikes some parts of his job as much as it appears. He shrugged.
“Depends on how you look at it,” he said before looking away.
How Newton looks at things, according to some, is a larger concern than whether defenses have figured him out. Rivera said he believes in Newton’s ability to adapt physically but that Newton doesn’t realize how many people are reading into the way he carries himself.
“College was a big, big stage,” Rivera said, “and winning the Heisman Trophy was big, big. But this is the NFL, where everybody’s watching.”
Newton’s response to losing might be explained by how seldom he has experienced it. He lost one game as a starter in college. His father has said that his son cried and was quiet after losses, dating from when he was 7 years old. That much hasn’t changed.
“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.”