Newton Fever hits Charlotte as Panthers introduce savior

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the middle of his celebratory dinner at a Manhattan restaurant Thursday night, Cam Newton's cell phone rang, and the voice at the other end was that of Carolina Panthers incumbent (and we apply that term very loosely and pretty much by default for now) starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

"It caught me off-guard," said Newton, who doesn't normally appear to be surprised by anything people throw at him, during an introductory media conference here on Friday morning. "He wished me luck."

Cam Newton might be asking Panthers rookie coach Ron Rivera for a different number. (AP)  
Cam Newton might be asking Panthers rookie coach Ron Rivera for a different number. (AP)  
The second-year veteran Clausen, who as a second-round pick in 2010 was 1-9 as a starter and had an anemic 58.4 passer rating, the lowest for any player who started 10 or more games a year ago, was certainly being gracious. But the truth is, he had better discover a four-leaf clover somewhere in the turf at Bank of America Stadium, or stumble onto a horseshoe soon or some other talisman for good fortune, to be able to retain the job atop the depth chart much longer.

Odds are that Newton, who was characteristically engaging during the press session, is going to take Clausen's No. 1 job. Adding insult to injury, he could even claim his uniform number, No. 2, pretty soon. Both players wear the numeral and Newton suggested he wouldn't mind keeping the number he made iconic at Auburn.

"I understand something may have to be worked out," Newton said.

To his credit, Clausen was among a group of 10-12 veteran players who showed up for a workout on Friday morning. He was at Bank of America Stadium at around 7:30 a.m., but not even getting up at the crack of dawn might save Clausen's job in a city that awoke Friday morning to a case of Newton Fever.

Said one team employee, fairly gushing about the seemingly overnight interest in a franchise that had become all but irrelevant here: "It's like an epidemic."

Clausen was said to have been cordial Friday, but fairly tight-lipped, and appeared to some who saw him to be somewhat agitated by the attention granted the Panthers' presumptive savior. Memo to Jimmy: It's about to get worse.

Unlike his press appearance at the combine two months ago, where I termed him "disingenuous," Newton on Friday was more relaxed and perhaps less suspicious. He said that he has "embraced the process [of becoming the top pick], and not let the process embrace me."

Dressed in a natty plaid suit, fielding questions effortlessly, he spoke of the challenges ahead of him in assimilating the playbook of new Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, but even more of securing his teammates' respect.

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As part of their investigation of Newton leading up to the draft, the Panthers had presented the Heisman Trophy winner with a portion of the playbook, took it back and then tested his recall of it at the blackboard. Given his brief exposure to the playbook, Newton said the design was one he liked and that could be conducive to his success.

He spoke, for instance, of Chudzinski's preference for "getting [yardage] in chunks and bunches," and cited the success of San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers in throwing the ball up the field. The previous night, Panthers first-year coach Ron Rivera, who introduced Newton on Friday but did not stick around for questions, talked of the team's strong running game and solid offensive line, and noted the running threat his new quarterback presented will be a plus for the attack.

Said Rivera: "I think the hard play-fake, the hard bootleg action ... will open some things up for [Newton] and for us."

In discussing the Auburn offense, Newton acknowledged the design was certainly less daunting than what he will face in the NFL, suggested "you can't fault me" for the perceived simplicity and vowed he will work hard to overcome the concerns about verbiage and comprehension that arose after his recent television interview with former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.

"Just meeting from 9-5 is not going to make you an elite player," said Newton, who named Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees as players after whom he hopes to model his work ethic.

Newton spoke on Friday of his April 5 meeting with Jerry Richardson at the Carolina owner's home, and spoke of how impressed he was with his new boss. He said that, at the get-acquainted session, Richardson had a list of questions and issues, and went over them systematically, before reading to the quarterback a letter that he had received from a Panthers patron.

"I don't know who wrote the letter," Newton said. "But whoever did, wrote, 'Ask Cam Newton does he want to be great?' And I do. I'm saying it now: I'm trying to be the best. I strive to be great."

One of the first Carolina players Newton encountered Friday morning was two-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. Assuming Kalil is back with the team -- his contract has lapsed but his free-agency status will be determined by a new CBA or the rules the NFL may impose when the legal wrangling over the lockout ends -- the two should become pretty familiar in short order.

For all his confidence, Newton allowed that the learning process that figures to catapult him to the top of the pecking order here will take some time. But probably not too much time.

"I understand it's not going to be instant, like instant grits," Newton said. "I would call it collard greens. You've got to let it sit and wait."

No one, however, should expect Newton to sit and wait for long.

Which, his initial indulgence Thursday night aside, figures to be a pretty tough situation for Clausen to swallow.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.


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