CHARLOTTE, NC — Not since Magic Johnson has there been an athlete more associated with his smile than Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
Going into the draft, one publication said of Newton: “Very disingenuous – has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup.” Maybe it seemed fake because through all the eligibility questions surrounding him last year at Auburn, he put up numbers worthy of his Heisman trophy and never lost that smile. It was almost maddening.
The Panthers played well against some of the league’s top teams, even in defeat, and lost six games by an average of 6.5 points before Sunday. Commentators raved about Newton, who averaged 427 yards in his first two starts – both losses.
He posted his lowest QB rating of his young career (61.7) as the Panthers fell 30-3. He completed 23-of-40 passes for 212 yards, but averaged a season-low 5.3 yards per attempt and had an interception.
Newton had always scoffed at the notion of the Panthers “moral victories”. But Sunday, he knew his poor play contributed to this demoralizing defeat. Every furrow of his brow and pursing of his lips seemed a thinly-veiled attempt to hide his anguish.
“This is embarrassing, man,” he said afterwards, spitting the words out angrily to get their bitter taste out of his mouth. “When you go each week and you try to do as much as you can to achieve those goals that you have for yourself, and then when it doesn’t happen, it leaves you scratching your head.” He paused, almost as if he actually wanted to scratch his head. But he didn’t.
He was uneasy and restless as he rocked back and forth while clutching the podium. He sighed, looked down at his hands and even looked up at the ceiling as he searched for answers. He found none.
“I sound like a broken record,” Newton said. “I’m getting tired of just having the same speech every week of just execution, but something’s got to give. I can’t just keep lingering on with the negatives because life goes on, this game goes on. I’ve got a ton of faith in this team, a ton of faith in these coaches and I’ve just got to continously get better.”
Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer asked Newton if a team he played for had ever gone without a touchdown, and before he could finish the question, Newton said, “Never.” He nodded his head emphatically with each syllable as he added, “Ever, ever.” He fell silent and his eyes steeled as if determined to never let the indignity of failing to reach the end zone ever happen again.
He’s a rookie, and he’s allowed to have games like this. When evaluating quarterbacks, no one will dismiss him because his team isn’t winning. But when he stands in front of the media, you can almost see the losing, the sense of failure, eroding away at his insides like acid.
But it is okay for him to have a bad game. More importantly than the outside world or the media knowing that, Newton needs to know it. He needs to understand that wins don’t come easily in the NFL and unfortunately, his team will lose more often than it wins, especially for the next few years.
No athlete could possibly have more competitive fire in him than wide receiver Steve Smith. He’s been through everything imaginable, including a two-win season last year, and he’s still with us. Smith has even tried to calm Newton a time or two after a loss.
But Newton’s interpretation of something Smith said in the locker room before the game about the legacy a player leaves was poignant. “Tomorrow’s not promised. The next game is not promised. If this was my last game…” he trailed off, making a face as if disgusted that this could be the last memory he would leave behind. …I don’t even know what to say.”
“There’s a level of play that you have, some standards that you set for yourself and as an individual, if you don’t play to those standards, what do you do? Do you think it’s okay to do that?” His tone was almost accusing, as if every media member should feel guilty for excusing his bad game.
Fans love his intensity and his hatred of losing, as do his teammates. It’s easy to see why his teammates rally behind him at every level. Newton has tormented opposing defenses for most of his rookie season. Now, he needs to learn to stop tormenting himself.