Weekend at Cam's. The observations by reporters inside the combine workouts Sunday, including ESPN's John Clayton and Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders and Yahoo!Sports, show that Cam Newton's a work in progress -- but making progress after working for the last few weeks with San Diego-based quarterback coach George Whitfield. Newton doesn't have major delivery problems, is still adjusting to taking snaps from center instead of the shotgun (which for someone so athletically gifted won't be a lingering problem), struggles with some touch passes, may have accuracy issues while he makes adjustments to new techniques, and, according to Farrar: "The footwork is still a little gangly. You can tell that he's still working on a lot of technical issues as an under-center quarterback.''
Newton, 6-5 and 248 pounds, looked to be in perfect shape for his on- and off-field job interviews here. One NFC GM, watching him being weighed and measured, said, "I was hoping Carolina wasn't in the room. I want that guy in the AFC.''
He ran a speedy (for a quarterback) 4.58 40-yard dash but was off-target while adjusting to some newness, like taking snaps from center and dropping back and throwing. In his passing session, he completed 11 of 21 throws. To be clear on this, that's not good. But he'll have another chance to show his pro-style game next Tuesday at Auburn (March 8). And I've never heard any GM on draft day say, "Yeah, we downgraded that quarterback because he threw poorly at the combine.'' Teams interested in Newton will dissect his game and work him out before the draft.
As Newton told me last week, before the combine: "Coming from under center has been the focus of working with George. I know it's going to be hard, and we're working hard. I throw first thing in the morning, and then we watch film, and maybe do some chalk talk. For me, transitioning to playing under center is like driving a car, changing from an automatic to a manual-shift car. I can move the car now, but this is about learning to drive it well. But what's helped is my relationship with George. It's superb.''
The knock on Newton is that, like Tim Tebow, he often looked to be a one-read quarterback who would take off running if his first man were covered, and because he's so athletically gifted, when he'd take off, good things would happen. He knows when he takes off in the NFL he might get his block knocked off eventually.
I heard positive reports over the weekend about his quick reactions in meeting rooms when he was put on the board and asked to dissect why he made a certain read or throw. He threw for 30 touchdowns and ran for 20 last fall at Auburn, but NFL teams will want to curtail his running. Last fall, he threw 280 passes and ran 264 times. That's 19 runs a game, on average. The NFL doesn't want to staple him to the pocket, but I can't imagine a team that's going to draft Newton will instruct him to run eight or 10 times a game. Try four to six, on average. It's just too dangerous for a quarterback to leave the pocket as often as Newton did in college.
It's too early to tell, eight weeks before the draft, how the quarterbacks will come off the board. Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert are fighting to be the top passer picked, and both should go in the top 10 to 12. Ryan Mallett of Arkansas had a great day throwing Sunday. Jake Locker of Washington had a great day running. Christian Ponder of Florida State, despite some chronic right arm problems, had the best overall day of any quarterback at the combine Sunday. It'll be interesting to see if a team with a major quarterback need --Tennessee, for instance -- passes on one of the top two or three and hopes Ponder's still there near the top of round two.
I really don't think context is the issue, but you asked for it, so here it is. A few of you, some angrily, have asked for the story behind the tweet that launched a thousand reactions the other day -- this stand-alone quote from Cam Newton: "I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon.''
A publicist for Under Armour, the outfitter that signed Newton to an endorsement contract, called me to say the company had Newton available to speak to four members of the media for 15 minutes each. Since I was going to write about Newton at the combine (I didn't know what exactly, and I didn't know if it would be for the magazine or for this column), I said yes. And so I spent 15 minutes on the phone with Newton Tuesday.
I was first in the batting order; I assume three others followed me for 15 minutes each. Newton talked about his work with quarterback coach Whitfield and his combine preparation, some of which I detailed above. After about 12 or 13 minutes, I asked him about his deal with Under Armour; I don't remember my exact question, but it was something about what he expected the deal to do for him. And he said one of the things he wanted to stress was that he saw himself not only as a football player, but also an entertainer and icon.
I had thought all along that I wouldn't use anything from our conversation until this week, after I had seen him at the combine and, hopefully, got to spend a little more time with him. When we got off the phone, I began to think about what he'd said. I knew it would be something that would raise eyebrows among NFL teams, who like their prospects to be single-minded, not entering the league thinking about anything except being the best player they can be. I thought if anyone else in the lineup asked him about the Under Armour deal, he'd probably say the same "entertainer and icon'' thing. I didn't want to make a news story out of it, but I did want to get it out that he'd told me this, so I sent it out to my 510,000 followers on Twitter.
Reaction was swift, and negative. One of his representatives called the next day to tell me, basically, that I'd sabotaged Newton just before the combine, and it was going to damage him, and if I'd written this as part of a larger story with context, no one would have seen the quote as very troublesome. I told him you're kidding yourself; if this were in a long story about combine prep and the deal with Under Armour, the media at large would have plucked out the quote and run with it the exact same way. And teams would have wondered about Newton's commitment to the game. How does the context of the quote change the impact? To me, not at all.
Did any of Newton's reps -- agent Bus Cook or his marketing people or father -- say to him, "That's a bad thing to say at any point of a young career, never mind just before the combine?'' I certainly hope so, or they don't have his best interests at heart. I found Newton to be an amiable enough person, though how much can you really tell by a 15-minute phone conversation? And I was encouraged by a couple of things at the combine.
One: He never said the quote wasn't accurate; I've heard enough players, with me and other reporters, backtrack out of a bad situation by saying they were victimized by an invented quote. Two: Combine godfather Gil Brandt of the NFL told me he spent time with Newton in Indianapolis and the player said he'd put his foot in his mouth and planned to apologize for it to the press and to teams. He pretty much did that to the assembled press, though he said several times he felt he was misunderstood.
On NFL Network Sunday, Newton said of our conversation: "My response was, I view myself as that due to the fact that I'm not only going to just be selling football cleats, I'm going to be selling lifestyle apparel -- everything else ... I could have picked way more [different] words to express what I really wanted to say. I want to personally apologize to everybody who was offended about it."
As I wrote higher in this column, I definitely wouldn't eliminate Newton as a possible high pick because of one sentence. He's had a checkered past, obviously, and this doesn't help. As I write in SI this coming week, teams are going to do lots of homework on Newton to make sure they're comfortable with him as a player and person and comfortable with his desire to make football the highest priority in his life. He's such a great prospect, with charisma to match, that I expect him to get picked very high, as high as number one, to Carolina. But teams have miles to go before they can say with certainty they're comfortable with building their team around him.
News item: Sidney Rice to roam free.
Bad news for the Vikings, if and when free agency happens -- and assuming unsigned players will be unrestricted free-agents after four or five years. Rice has four seasons of accredited service with the Vikings, and it's very likely that when a new CBA happens, unrestricted free agency will revert to the original rules -- if you're not franchise- or transition-tagged when unsigned after four or five years, you're free. When Adam Schefter reported Sunday Rice would definitely test the open market before he signs with anyone, it meant the Vikings would very likely be playing without Rice this year. If there is a this year, of course.
Minnesota chose to franchise linebacker Chad Greenway and do nothing with Rice, meaning Rice, who turns 25 Sept. 1, will enter a crowded wide-receiver free-agent market led by Santonio Holmes (Jets), Steve Smith (Giants), James Jones (Packers) and Braylon Edwards (Jets). Rice would be the lead guy in the field because of his age, assuming there's no negative carry-over from the 2010 hip surgery that ruined his season.
I don't like what this portends for the Vikings. A rebuilding offense needs receivers who can help a developing quarterback, and losing a 6-4 emerging star (again, provided he's healthy) would be a big blow. There will be plenty of young, interested teams with cap room -- Tampa Bay and Kansas City at the head of the pack -- if there's a cap, as most people assume there will be in a new labor landscape. He'd be a perfect young catch for the Patriots too. It doesn't make sense for Rice to go back to an uncertain future if he can go somewhere with a solid quarterback on a team that's not rebuilding.
I've had lots of questions in the past few days about the insane franchise-tagging going in the last few days. And while I can't defend the Miami Dolphins committing $12.48 million to a nose tackle, Paul Soliai, or the Panthers giving a center, Ryan Kalil, $10.1 million for one season, it's clear why they did it. It's the only way they knew to keep players they value as line centerpieces in a very uncertain NFL environment.