Although the Carolina Panthers continued to experience growing pains in Super Bowl 50, the organization has firmly established itself as a top contender in the league, and fourth-year quarterback Cam Newton has grown to be one of the league’s finest, winning this year’s MVP award. The true leader of his team, Newton displays confidence, compassion, exuberance and, most importantly, the ability to move the ball down the field.
When the Carolina Panthers drafted Newton first overall in 2011, he joined a startlingly underwhelming group of Heisman Award-winning quarterbacks to play in the NFL. In fact, only two passers have managed to win both the Heisman and the Super Bowl: Roger Staubach, who won Super Bowls VI and XII with the Dallas Cowboys, and Jim Plunkett, who won Super Bowls XV and XVIII with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders. Even more surprisingly, the most successful (or at least most enduring) Heisman-winning quarterback is arguably Vinny Testaverde, who ranks ninth all-time (Yes, really.) in NFL passing yards.
This so-called Heisman curse did not bode well for Newton, a quarterback whose college career was rocky to say the least. After facing medical, criminal and academic issues at the University of Florida, Newton attended junior college before earning his place as Auburn University’s quarterback.
Scouts, competitors and spectators have always respected Newton for his remarkable athletic talent (especially after winning the BCS National Championship), but, in the eyes of his potential future employers, his character issues made him a risky draft pick. Nevertheless, the Carolina Panthers decided to gamble.
With their pick, the Panthers accomplished a feat that many franchises repeatedly try and fail to achieve — finding a franchise quarterback. Over the past four seasons, Newton has continued to grow not only as a professional quarterback, but also as the leader of his team under head coach Ron Rivera (who won this year’s Coach of the Year award).
The result of Newton’s growth is a unified locker room, a team willing to play for each other. Their attitude, which has served them on and off the field, is evident in Newton’s touchdown celebrations (including his famous rendition of the dab), cornerback Josh Norman’s impassioned defensive performances (especially that against the New York Giant’s Odell Beckham, Jr.) and their unequivocal commitment to one another.
When the media criticized Newton for giving short answers and leaving the press conference early following the Panthers’ 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, tight end Greg Olsen immediately came to his defense.
“We can’t turn this into the ‘What’s wrong with Cam Newton?’ show,” Olsen said.
Newton, often criticized for his elaborate celebrations, does not celebrate his individual achievements and does not celebrate when his team is not succeeding (as is so common in the NFL). Rather, he celebrates alongside his team, and he celebrates with his community — after every touchdown, for example, Newton and his teammates give their football to a young Panthers fan in the crowd.
“I always feel like I gotta defend him,” Rivera said. “And I shouldn’t have to. His actions should speak for themselves. Giving the ball to the kids? That was his idea. That’s him.”
Criticisms of the Panthers and their quarterback are all too often undeserved. Jerry Richardson’s franchise consistently reveals itself to be among the league’s classiest, and Rivera and Newton will continue to lead today’s most talented team to greater success.