The last time Cam Newton played in the Georgia Dome, he took a celebratory ride on the shoulders of his college teammates. Nine months later, Newton will return to the field where he led Auburn to the SEC Championship, with the raised expectations of an NFL franchise on his shoulders.
Entrusted to bring the Carolina Panthers back to respectability, Newton’s made a big splash early in his rookie season. But wins have been as elusive as he’s been on certain scrambles.
Sunday, he’ll bring a team desperately searching for scoreboard proof of their improvement back to his hometown.
"The thing that’s impressive about him is he’s been in big situations already and I don’t think this one’s any different than the other big situations," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "Sure he is going home and he’ll probably have a lot of folks there."
Newton grew up in College Park, Ga., an Atlanta suburb about 15 miles from the Georgia Dome. But if he’s feeling the pull of family and friends this week, he won’t admit it. When asked how many ticket requests he’s received for Sunday’s game versus the Atlanta Falcons, Newton smiled and shot back, "StubHub."
Newton’s play has helped turn the Panthers from one of the NFL’s most offensively-challenged teams into an entertaining bunch well worth the price of admission. But with a 1-4 record, they haven’t been able to cash in when it matters most.
"We're way better than I even thought we would be offensively and as a group," Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "Everyone's saying it's a work in progress. We can't really say that anymore. It's too late into the season and we've got to make some moves to get back into the swing of things."
While their record may look similar, think about where the Panthers were the last time they played in the Georgia Dome. It was two days into 2011, and a miserable season was mercifully coming to an end with a 21-point loss.
Just five games into his professional career, Newton’s changed the feeling around a franchise. If he leads the Panthers to a win in his homecoming, he probably won’t be carried off on anyone’s shoulders. But a good result could take some of the weight off of his.
"We’re real close, but close doesn’t get you nowhere. And that’s probably the most disheartening thing, knowing how close we are to getting that win and putting us back on the map," Newton said. "Emotionally, I think we just need a win to hang our hat on."