published Monday, October 17th, 2011

Newton's first NFL season not likely to end as well as last year

ATLANTA -- Nearly 30 minutes after Atlanta's 31-17 victory over Carolina on Sunday afternoon, Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton was still half-dressed and frozen to a chair inside the visitors' locker room at the Georgia Dome.

He was silent.

Alone.

Devastated.

All that talk about money not buying happiness sometimes rings true. Even for a guy who just inked a four-year, guaranteed contract of more than $22 million as the NFL's overall No. 1 pick.

"We let our guard down," said Newton as explanation for the evaporation of the Panthers' 17-14, third-quarter lead. "At some point you've got to look in the mirror. Think about what you can do to make the team better. I've already begun my self-evaluation."

Throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns was certainly not the way he had intended to return to his hometown for the first time as a professional football player.

He had hoped to recreate the magic he brought to this building 10 months earlier, when he led Auburn to a 56-17 rout of South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

Said Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier that night after watching Newton throw for 335 yards and four touchdowns and run for 73 yards and two more scores: "He's certainly one of the best quarterback-runners to ever come through college football. Cam, he's almost a one-man show."

But against the Falcons he became almost a one-man wrecking crew to his own team's upset dreams. The three interceptions cost the Panthers deeply, especially near the end of the first half, when a Newton pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage before being intercepted by Brent Grimes, a turnover that denied Carolina a near-certain field goal and positive momentum heading into the third quarter.

Yet even the Falcons' Grimes generously praised Newton, saying, "He is what he is. He's a great athlete and a great quarterback. He's a problem. He can extend the play, he has the arm to make throws down the field, and he looks like a running back [at times]."

And this is clearly why the Panthers staked their future on Newton, even if they now stand but 1-5 in the present. After all, the Indianapolis Colts went 3-13 when Peyton Manning was throwing 28 interceptions to 26 touchdowns as a rookie, and that's turned out OK.

Think Vince Young with an arm and a brain or Michael Vick with five more inches and 50 more pounds and you have some idea of Newton's upside.

Or simply return to Sunday's third quarter, the ball on the Atlanta 14, third down and five yards to go. Newton had already taken more than eight minutes off the clock at that point. He had the Georgia Dome mumbling and grumbling. Then he started to scramble, danced outside to his left, then sprinted for the end zone and a go-ahead touchdown.

And as if to pay tribute to former Falcon Deion Sanders -- who received his Hall of Fame ring during a stirring halftime ceremony -- Newton performed a Deion-esque dance move upon scoring.

"It was exciting," he said without much excitement. "It's always good to come back to Atlanta."

But he didn't seem excited as he fielded questions from the media. He seemed tense. Angry. Frustrated. After all, Newton had previously endured all of six losses during his stints at Florida, Blinn Junior College and Auburn combined.

So when someone asked him how he was keeping his head up, Newton never said a word. His lips pressed tightly together, his jaw locked, his eyes burning a hole through the questioner, he merely shook his head.

A few seconds later, the group interview ended.

Yet perhaps this is also what needed to happen. As one Carolina writer noted, "This is new for Cam. He's usually much more sad than mad, like somebody just ran over his puppy. This might be a good thing."

And it just might. No less than Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said of an obviously upset Newton's near instant exit from the field after the game: "He can be as mad as he wants. I love it. He takes this serious, the way you should as a professional. That's why he's going to be a great quarterback."

Just maybe not as great as Newton would like to be this season.

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