Panthers didn't Luck out on Cam Newton

Rookie quarterback Cam Newton has exceeded the Panthers' expectations with his play this season. Kim Klement/US Presswire

Twelve games into his rookie season, Cam Newton has made us all forget he is not the quarterback the Carolina Panthers wanted almost a year ago.

In the news conference to officially announce the departure of coach John Fox, team owner Jerry Richardson, without naming names, made reference to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The Panthers held the first overall pick in the draft and Richardson’s public statements made it clear the Panthers would go that route. Privately, team officials confirmed there was no doubt Luck was the guy -- as long as he decided to enter the draft.

In the early days of last January, the Panthers didn’t even know who their coach would be, but they already had Luck penciled in as their quarterback. Nearly a year later, Luck’s decision to stay in college is looking like it was a huge break for the Panthers.

Newton is a strong candidate for offensive rookie of the year. He threw for more than 400 yards in his first two games, already has more rushing touchdowns (13) than any quarterback in a season in NFL history and has brought life and hope to a franchise that had none.

"Honestly, is he exceeding our [expectations]?" said Ron Rivera, who ended up as Carolina’s coach shortly after Luck announced he was staying at Stanford. "Absolutely. We always felt the young man had something special about him. Just for it to start showing and going the way it has been has been tremendous."

Newton has exceeded all expectations, in part because expectations weren’t all that high. Although he was winning a Heisman Trophy and a national title at Auburn, he wasn’t viewed as a sure thing.

That’s why, once Luck said he wasn’t entering the draft, the world assumed the Panthers wouldn’t take a quarterback. It made sense because, over the past decade, the Panthers had built a well-deserved reputation as one of the NFL’s most conservative franchises. They simply didn’t take big gambles.

With Luck out of the picture, the common assumption was the Panthers would go the safe route and go with defense. Names like Nick Fairley, Da'Quan Bowers (before word spread about the condition of his knee) and Patrick Peterson were kicked around.

The Panthers looked hard at all those names. But, as February and March rolled around, I started hearing indications the Panthers were taking a long look at Newton. At first, I didn’t really believe that -- or at least I didn’t believe that, when push came to shove, they’d go through with it. Taking a big leap just seemed so out of character for the Panthers.

In late March, I talked with several Carolina officials at the NFL owners meeting. They confirmed what the rest of the world was refusing to believe. They were confirming that they were giving very serious consideration to taking Newton, even leaning in his direction.

That’s when I turned around and wrote this column, saying the Panthers needed to use the No. 1 overall pick on Newton. The logic I used was the logic the Panthers were using. First, they had come to realize the NFL had become a quarterback-driven league and they might only get one shot at a guy with the potential to be a franchise quarterback. Second, the more homework they did on Newton, the more they believed the knocks on him were unfounded.

Critics were saying Newton didn’t have a desire to be great and that he had played in a college offense that was so simple it would be hard for him to pick up an NFL system.

"I think the thing that a lot of people really kind of miss out on as far as Cam is concerned is his commitment to being a great player in this league," Rivera said. "The young man really does do the things that you would expect of a No. 1 pick [and] what you would expect of a leader. He is committed to the game [and] he is committed to this football team."

The Panthers also spent lots of time talking to Newton’s coaches and teammates at Auburn. They had offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula sit down with Newton for a lengthy film-room session. Chudzinski and Shula came back and told Marty Hurney and Rivera they had no doubt Newton could run their offense.

“I don’t think people really gave him enough credit for what they did or give them enough credit for what they do at Auburn,’’ Rivera said. “People always thought he was in a one-read offense. We went through the process learning about him and we came to learn that it really is not a one-read offense. There was a little bit more that he had to do as a football player.’’

That’s why the Panthers took the plunge on Newton. That’s why they’re not looking back regretfully at Luck’s decision. They’ve got their franchise quarterback.