|Newton's play as a rookie silenced the doubters who questioned his credentials as the top pick. (Getty Images)|
The Carolina Panthers did a smart thing Tuesday by locking down wide receiver Steve Smith for another three years. But they did a smarter thing a year ago when they stuck to their convictions and chose Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick of the NFL Draft.
Basically, the Panthers followed one of the draft's most important tenets, which is to be true to yourself -- even if it means making an unpopular or controversial decision. The Panthers were, and look where it has them now.
On the road to recovery.
While Newton's choice was popular with Carolina fans, it wasn't the safest one out there. Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus or LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson were less risky, but you don't put people in seats with a defensive tackle or a cornerback. You put them there with a quarterback who is talented, who is creative and who can win.
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And Newton touched all the bases.
Nevertheless, he was no sure thing, and there were plenty of people out there -- myself included -- who thought Newton was a disaster waiting to happen. First of all, he had a checkered background. Second, he played in what one NFL coach called "a junior-college offense" that revolved around him. Third, he didn't seem wired right, talking about becoming "an icon" and "entertainer" before he had taken a single snap in the pros. Fourth, and most important, he just seemed so ... I don't know ... entitled that the first guy I thought of was Ryan Leaf, the second pick of the 1998 draft and one of the biggest busts in league history.
OK, so that's a stretch. I'm just telling you how things seemed. And I know one guy who understands because he worked in San Diego for years, leaving shortly before then-GM Bobby Beathard walked the plank with Leaf. That guy is Marty Hurney, and if his name sounds familiar it should. He's the GM of the Carolina Panthers and the man who made the call on Newton.
He's also the one who did what San Diego did not in 1998 -- which was get the call right. Newton was no Ryan Leaf. Far from it. He was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and one of its most intriguing, exciting and successful young quarterbacks -- everything critics predicted he wouldn't be, which is why they're not running the Panthers and Hurney is.
But my question is: How could Carolina have been so sure? So I asked Hurney.
"When we put on the tape," he said, "and when you watched him, everything was so calm. It was very clear he was a quarterback who was an athlete, and not an athlete who was a quarterback."
They tracked every one of his passes. They talked to coaches and people familiar with him at Blinn College, where he transferred after leaving the University of Florida. They talked to people familiar with him at Auburn. They talked to people familiar with him at Florida, too. Hurney spent a day with his family. So did head coach Ron Rivera. In short, they conducted the most extensive background check in Hurney's tenure as GM, and they should have. The future of the franchise, as well as the future of those running it, depended on getting this draft pick right.
"Anytime you have the first pick of the draft you hold your breath," Hurney said. "But we'd done so much research talking to the people around him we felt good about our decision. And the more research we did the more it became obvious he was a very talented quarterback who had a great desire to be the best and to win. It was no fluke that he'd won wherever he'd been."
But winning wasn't the issue; character was. And there were sufficient red flags to make general managers and player personnel directors nervous. Lucky for Carolina, Hurney wasn't one of them.
"We all make mistakes when we're young," said Hurney, "and it was the result of a growing process that he had gone through, learned from and gotten better at with each place he went. When he went to Auburn, no matter whom you talked to, they had glowing things about his character -- and that's from guys who worked in the football operations side of it to the coaches to the players.
"[The 'icon' and 'entertainer' comments didn't bother me] because you had to know Cam and what he meant by it. He wants to be very good. He wants to be the best. And you want that in a quarterback. You want that drive and confidence. And when you get to know him you realize there are a lot of things said about him that aren't true."
Credit the Panthers for doing their homework. They did so much research that when I spoke to people within the organization shortly before the draft there was no doubt about who they would choose. I didn't like the pick then, and I didn't like it when I saw Newton and the Panthers fizzle in the third preseason game against Cincinnati and rookie Andy Dalton.
"He'll be fine," an unconcerned Hurney said afterward. "Trust me."
He was right. Newton threw for 400 yards in each of his first two regular-season games, with his total of 854 the most in league history for a rookie in his first two starts. When the season was over, he had thrown for 21 touchdowns and run for 14, become the first player in one season to throw for 4,000 yards and run for 500, and been named to the Pro Bowl and lifted Carolina out of the division basement.
"So how did you know that night in Cincinnati what you were in for?" I asked Hurney.
"Because he was making the right decisions," he said. "In preseason the [errors] were just in timing, and he didn't have OTAs or minicamps. But he was doing the right things and making the right decisions. A couple of weeks into training camp what our coaches were saying about Cam matched up almost directly to the notes we had about him going into the draft. At that point, you said, 'OK, we're on the right track here.'
"It was just a matter of time. I don't think anybody could've predicted he'd go into the first two games and throw for over 400 yards or do what he did the entire season, but you had a sense that this is the guy we evaluated."
It was, and there's a history lesson there for others to follow.