CHARLOTTE -- Only a few minutes into his press conference Thursday evening to address the Carolina Panthers' choice with the top overall selection in the NFL Draft, rookie head coach Ron Rivera offered this assessment of quarterback Cam Newton: "He's not drafted to be a franchise savior."
Try telling that to the taxi driver who ferried this columnist in from the airport a few hours earlier, a self-described "soccer fan turned football nut" who was "praying" the Panthers' brass would tab Newton with the top pick. Or to the several guests at the downtown hotel who chanted Newton's name when his countenance flashed on the television screen on Thursday afternoon. Better yet, try to convince Eddie Stedem, a Charlotte resident and five-year season ticket patron, who was among the 8,000-10,000 throaty fans who assembled at a draft party at Bank of America Stadium to view the first pick, that Newton isn't the new face of the franchise.
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Book it, Newton is the king of the Queen City, and on a weekend devoted to the monarchy, he has been recognized as instant royalty. Legion fans, the Panther's "Top Cats" cheerleaders, the "Sir Purr" mascot and somewhat grudgingly even Carolina officials, have essentially crowned him as such.
A city that has held its collective breath since December, when the Panthers' woeful 2010 season concluded with the league's worst record, and the dubious right to the top pick, finally exhaled. Nary a jeer or a discouraging word was heard when the choice of Newton was announced on the big-screen television outside the South Gate of the stadium.
"He was, and is, going to be the man," said Stedem, a beer in one hand and a Panthers baseball cap in the other. "You've got to do what you've got to do ... and in this division, with all the quarterbacks, they kind of had to do it, right? I mean, I don't know if he'll be a great quarterback or not, but he gets people excited."
He certainly does. And in a city where the team had become almost irrelevant -- despite 83 consecutive sellouts and an estimable PSL base, the no-shows at home contests had become disturbing here -- the Panthers desperately needed a healthy dose of some excitement.
The selection of Newton, who, as The Sports Xchange pointed out Wednesday is the least experienced quarterback ever taken with the top pick in the era of the common draft, by any metric, provided it.
General manager Marty Hurney, who acknowledged that Newton had been the Panthers' choice for quite some time, and whose minions in New York turned in the team's draft card only 30 seconds after commissioner Roger Goodell officially opened the festivities, briefly addressed the throng gathered outside the stadium. A guy who has been pilloried at times in recent years for the Panthers' poor showing, and who the aforementioned cab driver snidely predicted would "blow" the top choice, was cheered.
Asked if the reaction by the Carolina fans was exciting, Hurney allowed: "Yeah, it was, actually."
Stedem conceded he had the game jersey he wore to the draft party -- a Panthers shirt with No. 8 on it and "Newton" emblazoned across the back -- specially made up for him on Thursday afternoon.
The wager here is that, by Friday morning, Charlotte sporting-goods stores will feature a considerable inventory of similarly designed game jerseys. His off-field indiscretions aside -- and Rivera admitted that the former Auburn quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner was the "most researched" prospect he had been around in his NFL tenure and that the controversial quarterback had "made some mistakes" -- Newton was a popular choice here.
So how long until his official coronation? Rivera said that Newton will be provided a "chance to play" early on in his career. The 19th quarterback chosen with the initial overall pick since the common draft was implemented in 1967, Newton -- who will arrive here on Friday, meet with a coaching staff that includes offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula and will be given a playbook to pore over, in accordance with current NFL rules -- will be asked to "learn and grow" in the new offense, Rivera said.
Said Rivera: "Cam will play when he gets himself ready to play."
But the history of young quarterbacks in Carolina -- Kerry Collins, Chris Weinke and even Jimmy Clausen last season -- is that they play quickly. And the truth is, while Clausen will "compete hard," as Hurney said Thursday night, and while the Panthers may still acquire a veteran to fill a yawning void, Newton will be expected by the fans and perhaps even club officials to earn his considerable salary early.
When the Panthers phoned Newton several minutes before the start of the draft, to confirm to him that he would be their pick, Hurney asked the player if he was "ready." Replied Newton: "Ready to make history."
And probably be expected to make it pretty quickly.
The Panthers did not receive any offers for the No. 1 choice and, whether or not there is a rookie salary cap in 2011, might not have listened had they received any interest in the top slot.
His considerable athletic talents aside, Newton probably offers the Panthers that most nebulous but still coveted quality.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson -- ever the gentleman and hospitable enough to give this wandering columnist a ride inside the stadium in his limo on Thursday night -- noted a few hours before the draft that he hoped to have an enjoyable night. Newton, on a conference call with the media, said he hoped to quickly assimilate the offense and contribute as a rookie.
"It's my job," Newton said, "to fit into the offense as fast as I can."
Even Rivera said he hoped Newton could be the player that he and Hurney and the scouting and coaching staffs hoped they were getting.
The coach's initial assertion notwithstanding, Newton pretty much sounds like a presumptive savior to us.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.