Cam Newton needs to be himself

Entering his second season Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is focused on winning "at all costs." AP Photo/Chuck Burton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you thought the flap over San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith's comments about Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a few weeks back was the start of a feud that would linger for years, you missed the whole point by a mile.

Although some Carolina teammates got upset when Smith implied that Newton’s record-setting rookie statistics were overblown, Newton didn’t miss the point at all. In fact, without ever mentioning Smith’s name, Newton acknowledged the basic premise was right Tuesday when asked about his goals for the 2012 season. The question begged for a plural answer. Newton chopped it straight down to the singular.

“Winning,’’ Newton said. “That's all we play this game for is to get that W. That's it.’’

There was no mention of following up a 4,000-yard passing season with a 5,000-yard season. There was no mention of breaking his own record for rushing touchdowns in a season (14) by a quarterback. There was no mention of anything statistical at all. All Newton wanted to talk about was winning.

“In my job description, it says win at all costs,’’ Newton said.

See, no matter what the critics said about Newton before the Panthers took him first overall in the 2011 draft, and no matter how angered teammates and fans might have been about Smith’s comments, Newton truly is all about winning. He always has been and always will be.

This is a guy who won a junior college national championship at Blinn College and followed it up with another national title at Auburn. Despite all that, there were critics who said Newton was nothing more than a showman, and he didn’t have the desire to be great on the NFL level.

Although others agreed with that assessment, Carolina general manager Marty Hurney, who was getting ready to make the most important draft decision of his life, began doing his homework. He saw something completely different.

“The first thing that struck me when I first met him was his desire to win and to be the best player and the best quarterback he could be,’’ Hurney said. “He has a great concept of the history of the game and where he wants to fit in. He knows that if he wants to fit where he wants to fit, that he has to win games to do that. He knows that winning defines where he fits.’’

Where does Newton want to fit?

“I think he wants to be the best,’’ Hurney said.

Then, there were all those who raised their eyebrows when Newton threw some sideline fits and showed a lot of frustration as the Panthers went 6-10 last season. They said Newton was immature.

They missed the point of what Newton is about by two miles.

“I’ll tell you this about Cam: Everything about him is real,’’ said Panthers quarterbacks coach Mike Shula. “He’s the same with me, the other coaches, the other players, the media and everyone he interacts with. He’s just real all the time. And part of Cam being real is that he hates to lose as much or more than anyone I’ve ever seen. When he wins, he has a lot of fun. Winning equals fun in his life. That’s what drives him.’’

That’s why last season wasn’t fun for Newton. It also may be why he recently said he wasn’t a good teammate as a rookie.

“I’m still trying to figure out where the heck that came from, because I don’t agree with that at all,’’ Hurney said. “I thought he was a tremendous teammate last year. The fact is, yeah, he got mad after losing. Heck, I like that. What’s wrong with that?’’

Absolutely nothing.

Newton wants to keep his emotions in check in the future. That’s a nice idea, and you have to expect that a 23-year-old naturally will continue to mature. But maybe there’s an easier way to avoid having television cameras record every pout and irritating the media by taking a long time to talk after a loss.

Maybe the best way to avoid all that is to simply stop losing.

“You don’t ever want players to get in the habit of being satisfied with losing and saying, 'I’ll get them next week,'’’ Shula said. “As the leader of this football team, you can lead by example. He does that just by being himself and letting everyone see how serious he is about letting this football team win.’’

Newton may be working to tone things down, but the Panthers aren’t encouraging that. They know what drives Newton, and they don’t want that to disappear.

“I know he won’t ever lose that burning desire to win and that hurt when you lose,’’ Hurney said. “You have to have that hurt-when-you-lose attitude in this league to be able to do the things that it takes to win.’’

Newton doesn’t need to change his demeanor or his attitude at all. He just needs to build on what he did last year. That should be a natural process. After missing all of last offseason because of the lockout, Newton is getting a full offseason with his coaches and his playbook for the first time. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has a famously large playbook.

“You want to come look at my playbook?’’ Newton said. “I'm telling you, man, it ain't on the Atkins diet, I can tell you that.’’

The Panthers didn’t really scale back the playbook for Newton last year. He had to know as many as 115 pass plays. Word around Bank of America Stadium is the playbook has put on a few extra pounds this offseason.

“We’ll continue to build on the things we did well,’’ Shula said. “We want him to expand his world, and he wants to expand his world. Otherwise, people will figure him out and stop him in a hurry.’’

Let the rest of the world try to figure Newton out. The Panthers already know what they have. That’s a quarterback with a burning desire to win. No need to tinker with that.

Let Newton simply be himself and get better play from a revamped defense that was devastated by injuries last year.

Those things alone might add up to a winning record -- and a very happy quarterback.