CHARLOTTE, SUNDAY, 5:05 P.M.
The Panthers' home locker room has emptied quickly after a 30--23 loss to the Packers, leaving just a few players behind to breathe the air of desperation that settles in ominously when an NFL season begins with two losses. Among those lingering is 11-year veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, one of only two Carolina players still on the roster from the franchise's Super Bowl loss to the Patriots eight years ago.
Smith, 32, leans against the wooden frame of his dressing cubicle as family members wait nearby. He was a pivotal figure in the Green Bay game, with six receptions for 156 yards but also a careless and costly third-quarter fumble when the Panthers were driving to regain the lead. Yet Smith is not the story on this day. Nor are most of his teammates. Cam Newton, the rookie quarterback selected by Carolina with the first pick in the NFL draft after leading Auburn to the national championship last January—he is the story.
Every quarterback taken No. 1 is subject to relentless scrutiny until he can be classified for posterity as a success or a failure. This process can take years, but interim grades are dispensed frequently, especially for a prospect such as Newton, whose combination of size (6'5", 248 pounds), skills ("He's big, he's strong, he's fast, and he's got a hell of an arm," says Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers) and inexperience in a pro-style passing game make him a particularly intriguing high-stakes experiment.
After throwing for 422 yards, an NFL record for a rookie debut, in a 28--21 Week 1 loss at Arizona, Newton had 432 against the Super Bowl champion Packers. His total of 854 passing yards in his first two games is the most by an NFL player (the remarkability tempered somewhat by the name of the previous record-holder, Todd Marinovich, who had 638). But Newton also threw three interceptions. He was good. And he was also bad. And he lost. "I think what happened today was that he experienced the NFL," said Smith. "He experienced the high because of the way he played overall. And he experienced the low, which were the three picks. And that's the NFL. He's going to have to keep learning."
That process started four months earlier.
BRADENTON, FLA., FIRST WEEK IN MAY
It was an unusual arrangement in one of the strangest years in NFL history. Newton was drafted in New York City on the night of Thursday, April 28. Because of a one-day court-imposed hiatus in the labor impasse between owners and players, during which teams were allowed to resume operations, Newton spent the day after the draft at Panthers headquarters in Charlotte. He met with coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and, most important, got a copy of the playbook.
Soon after the lockout resumed on April 30, Newton moved with his father and two brothers into a 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom villa on the grounds of the IMG Academies in Bradenton. There he'd participate in a daily workout regimen designed by IMG's Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback, to mirror an NFL off-season program. "We tried to create the environment he would have had without the lockout," says Weinke, who was 1--14 as a rookie starter with Carolina in 2001, the first of his six seasons with the team.
George Whitfield, the California-based quarterbacks coach who tutored Newton before the February combine, also came in for the sessions, along with former NFL QB Ken Dorsey, then with IMG and now a scout for the Panthers. Newton's expenses were paid entirely by Under Armour, the athletic equipment manufacturer with whom he has an endorsement contract. Other NFL players participated, including Vikings backup quarterbacks Joe Webb and Christian Ponder (like Newton a rookie), and first-year Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb.