CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the waning moments of a strange 35-35 game against the New York Giants, as things seemed to be collapsing all around him and tempers were flaring after every whistle, Cam Newton stood calmly on the sideline, his hands tucked firmly inside his shoulder pads near his neck as he nodded his head confidently.
Sure, the Carolina Panthers had just squandered a 28-point lead on the road, but Newton’s locked-in facial expression was that of a man who seemed to know he had the game in the bag.
He just knew.
Such is the demeanor of Newton, who has gone from Heisman Trophy winner and national champion at Auburn to No. 1 pick in the draft and now, in his fifth season, a leading MVP candidate for the NFL’s best team.
“I don’t get nervous,” Newton said bluntly. “I’ve been playing football too long for me to get nervous. I have dreamed of being in this position.”
Newton is in position to get the Panthers to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2003. All that stands in the way is the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship game on Sunday.
“This,” Newton said, “is why you play football.”
Newton’s confidence is on display weekly.
It’s there when he breaks the huddle, saunters up the line and looks over the defense. It’s there when he shakes off a 280-pound defensive end — what other quarterback not named Roethlisberger does that? — and finds an open receiver down the field. It’s on display when he breaks free from the pocket and the 245-pounder looks to run over a defensive back, not around him, knowing he has the guy by 40 pounds.
Center Ryan Kalil said Newton hasn’t changed an iota as a person since coming into the league in 2011, but what changed is his self-confidence — particularly in a season when he became the first QB to throw for 35 touchdowns and run for 10 in a season.
“Honestly that comes from experience and playing more football,” center Ryan Kalil. “The longer you play the more reps you get, the more good situations and bad situations you are exposed to, the easier the game gets. The game slows down for you so you can play with more confidence — and that’s what we have seen from Cam. He’s grown up.”
Well, sort of.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera calls Newton a “big kid” who likes to enjoy himself on the field.
During training camp Newton can be seen singing on the field between plays or with his arms spread pretending to fly like a bird as he runs. It can be seen in his touchdown celebrations where he breaks into the dab or runs to the stadium wall and hands a child a football. It can be seen in the numerous community-related projects he does in the Charlotte area during the offseason, most of which revolve around kids.
“When you see me play, you see a kid out there,” Newton said. “Some people call it immaturity, I could care less.”
What opponents see is Newton’s energy and how it makes those around him better.
“It’s contagious,” Arizona defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. “You can see the whole team feeds off of it. That’s what you want from your quarterback — a guy that’s going to bring the fire and lead the troops. I think the heart of their team definitely feeds off of his energy. I understand why he does it. He looks like he’s having fun out there. He’s just a kid on the field and that’s the way the game is supposed to be played.”
Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said he has no doubt Newton is ready for the pressure that is ahead in the NFC title game —and potentially the Super Bowl.
“Most certainly,” Cotchery said. “A lot of people don’t like to factor into what a person has done in college and all of those things but he led a team to a national championship and he has been in big moments and has the experience of playing in three straight playoffs. He is ready for these moments.”
Newton led the Panthers to the winning field goal that day last December against the Giants, calmly driving 49 yards in eight plays in 1:46 to set up Graham Gano’s 43-yard field goal as time expired.
It got Carolina to 14-0 on the season.
The Panthers lost the following week but Newton said it only refocused him and the team on the ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl.
He knows that means beating Arizona first.
“It’s about seizing the moment,” Newton said. “We know what we have in front of us, and if we don’t maximize that opportunity, then we’re going to be looking at it like, ‘Dang, we let something so close slip through our hands.’ “