Cam Newton took to WFNZ on Monday afternoon with Steve Smith to discuss his third season in the NFL, team expectations, and how he's matured as a player. What we're left with is the most candid interview of his short NFL career.
Nobody was better prepared for handling the media upon entering the league than Cam Newton, and it showed. He played through charges of impropriety during his time at Auburn, saw his father pulled into the media limelight, and watched from the sidelines as reporters from around the country discussed whether he should be left off the Heisman trophy ballot. Newton made it through, and upon his arrival in Carolina he said all the right things.
Cam talked about instant grits, and collard greens -- appealing to Charlotte's food sensibilities with silky-smooth metaphors that rolled off the tongue, instantly becoming catch phrases. These words didn't bear true as the season started, however, as Newton quickly became frustrated with his teammates, distanced himself on the sideline, and appeared fed up with trying to compete on a six-win team. Now he's learning to deal with adversity.
"I think it's challenging. At each and every level I had to learn something. Coming out as a rookie I was on a roller-coaster, I was on top. I had no clue what I was going to embark on. In this league you can't say "I can do it. Give me the ball coach, 4th and 1 -- I can do it" ... Nobody has a blueprint. I see my mentality mature. Now it's like: I have a hall-of-fame receiver I can rely on, I got an offensive line I need to trust. I know I have a lot of talent, but something needs to hit deep down -- "Cam, it's 3rd and 6 right now. I have Smitty open on a bang-9, but I can't step up and make that throw. I need to check it down."
This adjustment has been tough for Newton, as it is for any player used to having immense success quickly. Newton is often compared to LeBron James, the NBA phenom who single-handedly made the Cleveland Cavaliers relevant, lifting them from basketball's doldrums. The difference here is that Newton is a cog in a machine, not a fifth of a team -- his best efforts wont carry an entire organization, but it's not for lack of trying. Changes are being installed that can't be seen on the practice field, and can only be experienced inside the huddle. Cam talked about what's different in 2013.
"Communication. One of our hard-headed players always says there's no secrets out here on the field. If I feel there's something we need to do, it's said. If Smitty says "This will be the best adjustment", it's done. Previous years we said "It'll happen. Oh man, it'll come," now we're going out to take it.'
The emergence of Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson turned the spotlight on Cam, asking if he could ever win the same way the three rookies did when their respective teams made the playoffs in 2012. "I'm human," Cam said. "I'd by lying if I told you it didn't get under my skin, at least once".
Carolina's quarterback is an athletic specimen, and one of the league's most prolific passers over his first two seasons, but can he be a leader? Steve Smith pondered this while hunting for one of his favorite snacks.
"Here's the thing, I made the statement when I was Twinkie hunting. Four stores, struck out. I said this, a patch does not make you a captain, and it doesn't limit you from being a leader ... ultimately the way we've matured is how we've handled adversity."
The change from 'me', to 'we' is noticeable -- and something prolific throughout the interview. Everything is pointing to a united Panthers' locker room, and it begins with how they rally together when things are going poorly. Newton puts it succinctly, "When we get punched in the mouth, or slapped around, how will we respond?"
Newton, and the rest of the Panthers are hoping for one thing -- explained with a one-syllable word.
"It's a three letter word, simple, a three letter word. We're holding ourselves to a standard ... it's about having a mental approach to the game."
The word is 'win', and that's how the 2013 season will be judged. In the past Cam Newton has said that he understands what the NFL is about, but this is the first year it's easy to believe that he really does.