Rivera: Playoff wins next step for Newton

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- It was about this time during training camp a year ago that then-first year Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said Cam Newton was the team's quarterback of the future.

He also said it was time for Newton to win after finishes of 6-10 (2011) and 7-9 (2012). The first pick of the 2011 draft did win, leading the Panthers to a 12-4 regular-season record before suffering a 23-10 loss to San Francisco in his first playoff game.

The next step?

"He's got to become that franchise quarterback," coach Ron Rivera said after Wednesday's practice. "Every year he has taken those strides, big strides. This is the year I think that now, let's prove it. You've got to go out and prove it. You've got to go out and prove 'I'm one of these guys, I fit into that group of elite quarterbacks.'

"This is his chance. This is his opportunity. Last year, he took us to the playoffs. You've got to be able to win in the playoffs and take steps and strides as a team, as an organization."

During the offseason, ESPN.com's Mike Sando asked 26 league insidersInsider to grade every projected starting quarterback on a 1-5 scale, with "one" reserved for the best and "five" for the worst.

Newton graded out as the 16th best, ranking at the top of the third tier and percentage points outside the second tier.

So for Rivera to say Newton needs to win a playoff game to reach the elite status was right on target.

Newton is under contract through the 2015 season after the Panthers exercised his fifth-year option in April. The team wants to sign him to a long-term deal, but there is no motivation to rush into negotiations unless Carolina gets off to a hot start this season.

Newton also is coming off offseason surgery on his left ankle that has kept him from demonstrating his abilities as a runner in camp. While his timing with a new group of receivers has been good, there remain unknowns.

Newton could be held out of Friday's preseason opener against Buffalo at Bank of America Stadium as part of the rehabilitation process. There is really no need to rush him into a game situation. Rivera said a decision on that won't be made until after Thursday's practice.

Newton spent the first half of Wednesday's practice working out on his own while the other three quarterbacks ran team drills. When he got on the field he completed his first six attempts and finished 8-for-10 with his two incompletions coming on spikes because of misreads by him or the receiver.

"He looks good," Rivera said. "He's moving around well, making good decisions and making good throws."

But the next step to becoming elite won't come until Newton wins a playoff game.

And that is a long way off.