Panthers do homework on Newton, plus 10 draft things I've learned
Cam Newton's junior college coach has sent game tapes to the Carolina offices
It's a safe bet the Pats will come away from draft with an extra 2012 first-rounder
Quotes of the Week, Stat of the Week, 10 Things I Think I Think and much more
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Here I was prepared to write about what a lyric little bandbox (oops -- wrong sport, wrong physical plant) I found on my first trip to the Masters on Sunday, and I come to find out that one of the most dramatic days ever here was marred by the leaders of Augusta National. Columnist Tara Sullivan of the Bergen Record in New Jersey was barred from interviewing the crestfallen Rory McIlroy in the locker room after his epic collapse on the back nine. Though the Masters later apologized to Sullivan and called it a "complete misunderstanding'' at the hands of an overzealous security official, and said she should have been given access, that's easy to say now. The woman was prevented from doing her job Sunday at one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar. A disgrace.
More about that, and about the Masters, later in the column. There's some football to get to, and some significant football information with the draft just over two weeks out. We'll begin with the growing evidence that the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton are about to strike a long-term relationship.
A very interesting package was shipped from Brenham, Texas, to Charlotte late Friday.
Four game tapes of 2009 Blinn (Texas) College football games, with Cam Newton quarterbacking, were packed off to the Carolina Panthers.
"They wanted to see a little more tape,'' the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach of that junior college team, Ronny Feldman, told me Friday night. "Of all the teams looking at him here, Carolina's been the big one. They called me twice this week.''
I talked to Carolina GM Marty Hurney the other day, and though he didn't give me a clue about who the Panthers plan to pick with the first overall choice ("We've got time,'' Hurney said, "and maybe our list changes before the first round begins''), it's beginning to look a lot like Newton. More and more, the Panthers seem to be getting comfortable with the idea of choosing a player with only 284 major-college passes ... in some part because of the year he spent righting his football and personal life at a junior college, Blinn, 45 minutes outside Houston.
The Panthers haven't seen Blinn tape yet, and it will probably be the last tape they watch before finalizing their decision on Newton. But it's a sign they're pretty far down the road on him if they're going to look at how Newton played in what's probably the equivalent of a good Division I-AA football season. Blinn won the National Junior College Athletic Association championship in Newton's year there. Most of the kids on the team are 18 or 19, stopping off for a year or two on the way to -- they hope -- better things.
In his year under Feldman, Newton played in what's close to the kind of "Pistol'' offense run at Nevada. In the Pistol, the quarterback stands about halfway back to where a passer would take a snap in the shotgun -- maybe four yards instead of the deeper seven -- giving him the ball faster and allowing him to make decisions quicker while still being able to analyze the defense before the snap. Junior college football is often discounted totally, like it never happened, like it would have been better for Newton (in this case) to have sat for another mostly inactive year at Florida behind Tim Tebow, playing only in garbage time. How good is the quality of football? Inconsistent, depending on the weekly opponent; Newton's team rolled up 83 points on Cisco (Texas) Junior College. Four skill players from that 2009 team ended up at Auburn, Houston, Texas Tech and Southern Miss.
But the Blinn year's a mystery, the missing year in Newton's life to a lot of people, including some in the NFL. Feldman said about 10 teams "have been through here'' looking for information on Newton, as NFL teams should seek given the quarterback's questionable background (possession of a stolen laptop, accusations of cheating in class) at Florida. For the record, Newton started all 12 Blinn games, completing 61 percent of his passes in an offense strange to him, with 22 touchdown passes and five interceptions. He averaged nine rushes per game and ran for 655 yards and 16 touchdowns. But more than football, NFL teams want to know what Newton was like in the year (January through December 2009) after he left Florida and before he went to Auburn.
One thing he wasn't was phony, said Feldman, who's livid about the impression that Newton's a fake. "I heard somebody on the radio the other day talk about his fake smile and how he's not genuine. That guy is full of s--- with a capital 'S.' He doesn't know Cam!
"I was with him day after day, side by side, for a year," added Feldman, now Blinn's head coach. "I can't say enough good things about him. He's a yes-sir, no-sir kid, 100 percent trustworthy, with a strong passion to compete at anything. What a strong, strong leader.
"The first day here [in the offseason] they were all lifting, going after it hard. When it was over, they all thought it was done. But Cam, who doesn't even know these guys yet, says, 'I'm gonna be out there throwing if anyone wants to come.' Five or six go out. The next day, 10 or 15 are out with him. He comes in and says to me, 'Coach, you got five or six pass plays from our playbook you could draw up? We're going out there and we want to run some of our plays.' I said, "Wooooooo.' Then, later in the week, I see him out there running the stadium stairs, and a couple days later, he's got a bunch of guys out there with him. A natural leader, a strong, strong leader. Charismatic.
"And he just played great for us after the first two or three weeks. He was rusty at first. But then he showed he could do whatever he wanted. The last game, our championship game against Fort Scott [Kansas], we're down 18 [actually 16] in the third quarter, and he hurts his shoulder in the first half, and he can't really throw it in the second half. But he plays the option and brings us back and we win it.''
Feldman's a trip, a longtime coach in Texas who talks like Bum Phillips. Very opinionated about Newton and what's he's been through this offseason. Very sure he's never seen anyone like him in 28 years of coaching football.
"A few times,'' he said, "I'd be sitting in my office late, watching tape, trying to figure out what we'd do in the game that week. He'd call and say, 'What are you doing? Can I come up and watch with you?' And he'd come up and we'd go over things. He just loved it. The best way I can say it with Cam about football is, he's just ate up with it.''
I asked Feldman if Newton ever had the kind of problems at Blinn that he had at Florida. Absolutely not, he said. And the quarterback who said he wanted to be an entertainer and an icon as well as a great player ... Feldman never saw that guy. So Blinn becomes a piece of the puzzle that would lead Carolina to do what many now think is very likely -- pick Newton first overall in the draft.
In the past three autumns, Newton has been in three football towns in the deep south and southwest: Gainesville, Brenham and Auburn. All three places -- Florida negatively, Blinn positively and Auburn famously -- will play a part in where he gets picked 17 days from now. I hope you have a little better feel of Newton's little-known year now.
Three questions with Marty Hurney -- and you'll need to know his answers.
When I covered the New York Giants for Newsday in the mid-'80s, Hurney was a dogged Redskins beat man for the Washington Times. He got close to GM Bobby Beathard doing that, and the rest is history. What the man who will make the call on the first overall pick thinks:
Me: What advice do you think Bobby Beathard would give you about the first pick in the draft right now?
Hurney: "He'd say, 'When you make a decision, don't go back. You can't be afraid of making the wrong decision.' And you can't. If you are, you haven't done your homework.''
Me: How much pressure do you feel, having the number one pick in a year when there's no slam-dunk top pick? They all have some questions marks.
Hurney: "I'm not sure there are a lot of years when there's a slam-dunk top pick. It's easy to look back and say someone was a slam dunk. Was Sam Bradford really a lock last year, or did St. Louis need to spend a lot of time looking into him before the draft? I don't accept that this is a really different year in terms of a guy right now being a slam dunk, or there not being one.''
Me: If you take a quarterback, what does that do to Jimmy Clausen?
Hurney: "We believe Jimmy Clausen will be a good quarterback in this league. Because quarterback is such an impactful position, if you go over the candidates and there's someone at the top who can be an impact player, you've got to consider him. That's the responsibility we have -- who can be the most impactful player we can take there?''
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