Can he lead? Newton has Cam-do attitude

Third-year quarterback Cam Newton is tuning out negativity, despite his team's 0-2 start. AP Photo/Gary Wiepert

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton walked into the interview room, as he always does on Wednesdays. He placed his hands on both sides of the podium, as he almost always does.

Then he did something different.

He announced that he was going to make an opening statement before taking any questions about Sunday's 24-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills and this week's game against the New York Giants, who like the Panthers are 0-2.

"Today in practice, unbelievable," Newton said. "We had a lot of guys come out today with a lot of energy, a lot of pizzazz, encouraged of the fact that each and every day is a day to get better.

"There is a lot of encouragement in this locker room now. Nobody is down about any particular thing. That's what I want to see as a player and as a leader on this team."

Over the past three years, Newton has been constantly questioned more about his ability to lead the Panthers. So Newton is making a concerted effort to show not only his teammates and coaches, but also the media that he's not the same player that used to go to the sideline and put a towel over his head when things went bad.

That might be the bigger statement on this day, one that allows Newton and the Panthers to come out of this hole before they're completely buried.

"I like what I'm seeing from him right now as well," coach Ron Rivera said. "He has to set the tone not only for us as a football team, but for other people, too. For you guys. It's important he establishes who he is, wherever he goes, whenever he steps into a room."

Newton's evolution has been interesting to watch. What happened on Wednesday was particularly interesting.

After the opening statement, Newton was questioned about that as if he'd just thrown an interception that went the other way for six.

"You hanging that over my head because I started with a statement?" he asked.

Such is the price of celebrity, and there's none bigger at Carolina. Newton is featured in this week's ESPN The Magazine, and much of the focus is on his ability to lead and meet the expectations he had coming out of Auburn with a national championship and Heisman Trophy.

Here's a sample: "Still, [wide receiver Steve] Smith constantly reminds Newton that his newly earned captaincy is 'just a patch with C on it,' and more than one of his teammates is quick to warn, 'This isn’t his team yet.'"

It's not.

But at least Newton is saying and doing more of the right things to make it his team. In his statement it was almost like he was trying to will the Panthers to put the losing behind them, as he tried to do at the end of last year when Carolina won five of its last six games.

"I'm not going to be naive to the fact that we're 0-2," Newton said. "Boo-hoo! But at the same time I feel as if it's a positive sense in the locker room that does not go unnoticed, especially from my end."

He has been called phony by many, but he sounded genuine. When asked if he looked at the position the team is in as an opportunity to prove himself as a leader, he sounded defiant.

"I don't have to prove nothing to nobody, moreso to myself," Newton said. "As far as proving, I think that's a bad word. Nothing against you. It's bigger fish in the sea for me."

And that's to win.

"Anything that happens in this particular room is really irrelevant in my opinion," Newton said from his vantage point in the interview room. "I'm just saying what's on my mind and in my heart and be as open to you guys as possible."

Open is good. It's much better than being referred to as aloof.

But the best way for Newton to lead is with his performance. Through two games he hasn't been able to elevate the Panthers above their mistakes and injuries. He's ranked 20th in the league with a rating of 86.4. He has led the offense to only three touchdowns.

He knows he has to improve. His coaches know. That's why they had him throwing 45-yard passes into trash cans on Wednesday, a common drill but one Newton hadn't done in a while.

How many did he sink?

"Zero," Newton said. "But tomorrow I'm going to try to get one."

This led to something else that was outside the quarterback's normal Wednesday media routine.

As he left the podium I asked how many times he attempted to pass into the trash can. He came back and sat next to me.

"You really want to have a conversation about this?" he asked.

I did. But more than anything I wanted to see where Newton went with this.

He was funny. Engaging. Charismatic. Genuine.

It ended with me asking if he even hit the trash can, which he called a bucket.

"I hit the bucket, but I didn't get it in the bucket," Newton said.

But he did hit the target -- at least with his statement.