With Cam Newton’s ‘it factor,’ Panthers hope to take big step in 2015


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton knows how to win.

He won a BCS national championship at Auburn while claiming the 2010 Heisman Trophy.

He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after throwing for more than 400 yards in his first two NFL starts. He was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and the Panthers improved from a two-win team in 2010 to a 6-10 mark in 2011. Newton’s number’s dipped in 2012, but the team went 7-9 before making a big jump in 2013 with a 12-4 record and a division championship. It was the first time since 2008 the Panthers made the playoffs.

Paul Jenkins

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton

“He has that ‘it factor,’” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said of Newton, who earned his second Pro Bowl berth in 2013. “People have a hard time identifying it, but it shows up on the film. No matter how the game’s going, you just feel confident with him in the huddle. Only a few guys have that.”

Despite finishing with a 7-8-1 record last season, with Newton missing two games, Carolina repeated as division champs to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in the franchise’s 20-year history. The Panthers closed the season with four straight victories, then beat Arizona in a playoff game before falling to eventual NFC champion Seattle in the divisional round.

“He’s been a good teammate and great leader and has gotten better from his rookie year,” tight end Greg Olsen said of Newton. “What he’s been able to do has been impressive.

“For a guy who had to step in from Day One as a No. 1 pick and assume a new team and then to be, now going on his fifth year, what he’s been able to accomplish has been great.”

Newton wasn’t perfect during last week’s organized team activities, throwing a few interceptions – including one Thursday by safety Colin Jones, who jumped a Newton pass and made a nice, lunging hands catch before sprinting down the sideline. Assistant head coach and secondary coach Steve Wilks said Jones, a fifth-year player out of TCU, has “improved tremendously.”

PanthersLogoThe one thing eluding the Panthers has been a championship. Carolina has made the playoffs six times, reaching the Super Bowl in 2003 and falling in the NFC championship game in 1996 and 2005.

Both Olsen and Cotchery believe the Panthers, who begin a three-day minicamp on Tuesday, are ready to take the next step and Newton is the key.

“One thing you have to look at with his is he’s a winner,” said Cotchery, a 12-year veteran from North Carolina State who signed with Carolina last year. “There are guys who just know how to win and he’s done it. He just has that championship attitude about him and that confidence just goes to everyone else around him.

“I could name all the other things that he can do, as far as throwing the ball and running, but I just think that championship mindset that he has is going to carry him far in the league.

“We can take a huge step,” Cotchery added. “We’ve got some young guys who were able to gain the experience of playing in some meaningful games last year. We had a good draft this year and have some guys coming back. I think we can be really good.”

The Panthers selected 6-foot-4 Michigan receiver Devin Funchess in the second round to pair with the 6-5 Kelvin Benjamin, who caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine scores last year as a rookie. That duo could give Newton the type of mismatches on the outside to make even more plays in the passing game.

“We have some good pieces in place, and we’ll see,” said Olsen, an eight-year veteran who made the Pro Bowl last year for the first time, said. “There is a lot of work to be done between now and the start of the season, but if guys handle their business and we can fill a couple of holes, we have just as good a shot as anyone.”

About Ron Clements

Wisconsin native, former Marine, Summa Cum Laude graduate of East Carolina University and a working sports journalist since 1999.