CHARLOTTE — He props his fingertips on the lectern, his face lifting to engage his audience. He wears a brown herringbone jacket, white shirt and argyle tie.
“I’m still learning,” says Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers’ third-year quarterback. “It’s a constant learning process, and in this league, you don’t just wake up one morning or wake up in the play and say: ‘I’ve got it.’ ”
His eyes move from one face to the next, pausing to hold eye contact. His shoulders are back, his diction crisp and direct. These details are not insignificant, because in the universe occupied by an NFL quarterback, everything — each word, mannerism, response and performance — matters. Few players in any sport face such scrutiny. Last year, Newton wilted under the NFL’s harsh spotlight. A little more than a year after Carolina selected him with the draft’s top pick, Newton’s team went 7-9. His play regressed, his leadership was questioned and his words and body language were analyzed as his team tipped toward collapse.
“My son felt like he was drafted No. 1 overall to win games,” the quarterback’s father, Cecil Newton, says, “to be responsible, to take the burden that, when they didn’t win, it was his fault.”
As Newton was carrying the weight of a losing season, Washington fans were celebrating. The Redskins had their own highly drafted quarterback, Robert Griffin III, a charismatic and talented player who, like Newton, won the Heisman Trophy and was named the NFL’s rookieof the year. Their teams both ran the read option and relied on the quarterbacks’ athleticism, though Newton, at 6 feet 5, 245 pounds, is bigger than the slighter, quicker Griffin.
During last year’s high points, the crest of Griffin’s wave soaring, a question surfaced: Was Newton’s second season a preview for what Griffin would face in Year 2? But when a party is going, the fun raging and the music blaring, who’s thinking about a hangover?
This season, a bleary-eyed Washington woke up, and somehow Griffin’s second season has been more painful than Newton’s. The Redskins are 3-11, coaches and owner Daniel Snyder are at war and Griffin has been the season’s most enduring casualty — a sharp decline in most every statistical category and, for debatable reasons, deactivated after 13 games. Worse, he has been accused of being difficult to coach, and his leadership has come under fire.
“How many quarterbacks have been caught in the middle of a triangle like that when they’re trying to get ready to play a game?” says Terry Shea, a former NFL quarterbacks coach who tutored Griffin before last year’s draft. “I can see where he would be worn down.”
Griffin has worn a strong face through most of this season’s chaos, and a year earlier Newton did the same. But the Panthers quarterback eventually accepted that change was necessary, and when the 2012 season ended, he initiated a physical and psychological reconstruction that has led to one of the NFL’s most impressive turnarounds. His team is exciting and powerful, in control of its division-title hopes, and Newton is an outside candidate in the MVP race — proof that, for all the adjustment between a quarterback’s first and second season, perhaps the most important offseason occurs before his third year.
“He’s a huge reason, if not the biggest reason, why we are where we are,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen says.
Last year, Newton served as a warning. But now, amid Washington’s cruel reality, Newton’s comeback offers hope for Griffin and the Redskins — and, more than that, a blueprint.
The ball flew off the bat, and the center fielder jerked into motion. Newton was maybe 11 years old then, his father remembers, already his church softball team’s most athletic player.
In this game, his team entered the final inning with a 7-5 lead. Young Cam tracked the ball to deep center, reaching for the catch — but the ball sailed past his glove, rolling to the fence. The bases cleared, and Cam’s team lost. Afterward, he was inconsolable. “You would’ve thought I sawed his leg off — without anesthesia,” Cecil Newton recalls.
Even then, his father says, Cam took losses personally. If he lost a push-up contest against his dad, he pouted and went quiet. If Cecil ran the 41 / 2-mile course faster than his younger son, the boy scanned his mind for answers. He wanted to disappear, wrapping himself in the darkness and quiet.
“If he didn’t win, it was going to be a bad day,” Cecil says.
Years later, this wouldn’t change. Last season, Newton appeared petulant. When he threw interceptions or made the wrong read or forced a throw or missed a receiver, he retreated to the Panthers’ sideline, found a solitary spot on the bench and wrapped a white towel around his head. He was 23, the center of attention in a 73,000-seat stadium, and inside the towel, he at least could pretend it was dark and quiet.
“You just feel like gratification is going to be instant and things are going to go according to your script,” Cecil Newton says. “And things don’t always go that way.”
Success had always come easily, though. He was a high-school all-American, signed with Florida and spent two seasons there. He then won a junior college national championship at Blinn College and finished his career at Auburn — with a BCS championship and the Heisman. His college career had been defined by accolades but also by constant movement. Always his team’s most important player, he came to believe only he was responsible for wins and losses.
“He doesn’t really know what it’s like to have teammates and guys you can count on,” Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross says.
After a loss in October 2012 to the Dallas Cowboys, a frustrated Newton called for a “suggestion box” to fix Carolina’s problems. Teammates wondered whether Newton, beaten down already in his second season, was wound too tight for the NFL grind.
“I couldn’t care less if there’s a right way to lose,” Newton said during a news conference a few days later, mumbling and glaring at reporters throughout the meeting.
Patti Wood studies body language, and she was asked this past week to analyze videos from Newton’s and Griffin’s news conferences, one each from 2012 and ’13. In studying Newton’s podium sessions last season, she sees a man unsure of himself, whose expressions show sadness and defeat, whose habit of looking downward and sagging shoulders convey distrust in himself and his abilities — hardly the preferred message from a leader of men.
“He mumbles out some of the words as if they tasted bad,” says Wood, author of “SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language & Charisma.” She also noticed changes in Griffin from December 2012 to December 2013: Gone was the joyful, energetic Redskins rookie; in his place, she says, was a man whose posture and strained voice show defeat and frustration.
But unlike Griffin’s circumstances, the Panthers never considered benching Newton. The 2012 season was his to learn from, even if painfully.
“The commitment was made that he was going to be our guy,” Carolina Coach Ron Rivera says.
Even if Newton again wanted to disappear, Rivera’s decision and the NFL spotlight made it impossible.
“We know,” Panthers right tackle Byron Bell says, “all eyes are on him.”
Newton returned to Atlanta, where he had grown up, and tried to forget. He popped in “The Nutty Professor,” one of his favorites, and laughed at jokes he already knew.
The weeks passed, and he grew tired of the distractions. Ignoring the sour taste of the 2012 season wouldn’t erase it; only eliminating its reoccurrence would make it disappear. And so when he ran out of comedies, he began watching replays of his news conferences, wincing sometimes at what he saw.
Newton spoke with his father about what he could’ve done differently, on and off the field. If someone refused to criticize him, he pressed for bluntness.
“He made himself available to address some of the perceptions that ‘SportsCenter’ was tagging him with,” Cecil Newton says. “He probably reached out to not only me but other people: ‘What did you see? What was your perception? How would you have addressed it?’ ”
Newton gave up all meats but fish and seafood. He thought about body language and his words and how he dressed. He meditated. He hired a personal trainer, rising at 6 a.m. even on weekends and on vacation, asking his father to join him on the beaches of Panama City for leapfrogs and sand drills, then beginning another session at 3 p.m.
“My hips and butt and waist stayed sore for 10 days,” Cecil says now.
Cam worked on footwork and decision-making. He centered workouts on muscle groups and meals on fueling his body. He thought back on lessons he had learned from George Whitfield Jr., a private quarterback instructor who worked with him before the 2011 draft; Whitfield had talked about fundamentals and the belief that, regardless of Newton’s speed, he could be a passer like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. He practiced ball handling, keeping his eyes downfield, manipulating defenses by directing his offensive linemen into place. He worked on strengthening his legs, which power the throws and reduce inaccurate passes. He surrendered himself to patience; rather than run at the first sign of a hole, representing a feeling he is his team’s only chance at success, he would wait.
“You don’t have to yank the ripcord every time [a defender] gets five feet away,” Whitfield says, recalling a lesson he repeated often to Newton nearly two years ago.
When he rejoined his team last spring, other players noticed a change. Newton smiled during practices and was authoritative in the huddle. He showed a rookie’s enthusiasm, only he was relaxed and experienced. He learned to trust his teammates, and in return, they renewed their trust in him.
“There’s a lot of guys in here who don’t want anything from him,” Gross says, “other than just to be buddies and to support each other.”
One sight common his first two years, though, was noticeably absent. Says Rivera: “We don’t see him putting the towel on his head anymore.”
Throughout Newton’s second season, so many — coaches, teammates, family members and media — suggested changes. But those closest to him say now that he had to decide for himself to chase away the demons of 2012.
“He understands the impact he has in that huddle and that organization,” Whitfield says. “You start to have that realization: ‘What I do in the offseason, that matters, or the small steps I take in the week of preparation.’ He’s been paid back for all that effort with the winning.”
Although Griffin has always been more naturally polished than Newton, the Panthers quarterback now seems more comfortable in his own skin. Wood, the body language expert, says she sees and hears confidence and purpose. “Like he is a totally different man,” she says, and that was the idea behind Newton’s offseason makeover.
Griffin, though, spent the offseason rehabilitating his surgically repaired right knee, engaging in a political battle with coaches over the team’s offense and acknowledging only messages of support on social media. When the season began, Griffin’s footwork was flawed, and his passes were inaccurate. He hesitated before making decisions.
“I still didn’t see him mechanically demonstrate what I saw throughout last year,” says Shea, who worked with Griffin before last year’s draft but now sees a quarterback not yet comfortable with his health and effectiveness.
Griffin has insisted that he’s healthy, that he is the leader his team needs and that better days will eventually come. Newton took a more proactive approach and can now speak on the lessons of the past.
“Trial and error is something that is a must for each and every player to go through,” Newton says. “You can’t just come into this league and think, ‘I’m going to do this, going to do that.’ ”
It’s unknown whether Griffin has made a similar acceptance, but a hint popped into Shea’s cellphone this past week. He and Griffin exchange text messages a few times a week, Shea says; usually it’s Shea sending leadership ideas and Griffin responding with thanks. Shea withholds football tips, preferring to wait until he’s asked — although he, like so many who have watched Griffin this season, sees flaws.
“He just has to get back to your basic fundamentals,” he says, “and recapture that.”
This past week, Griffin initiated the conversation. Shea read the message. Griffin, already looking toward the offseason, was asking for help.