When the Carolina Panthers selected Auburn’s Cam Newton as their number one pick at Thursday”s NFL draft, the pick was met by a crescendo of boos.
Granted, some of it was directed at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell because of the league’s labor drama, but many of those boos at Radio City Music Hall were directed at the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner.
With all of the commentary questioning his character, intelligence and leadership before the draft, the scrutiny awaiting Newton once he signs his first multi-million deal with the Panthers will be relentless.
Considering all the criticism heaped upon him before he was drafted, a lot of it grossly unfair and racially tinged, Newton’s margin of error will no doubt be small. Even with the past success of quarterbacks like Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Doug Williams and his Hall of Fame mentor Warren Moon, the bias against black quarterbacks is still there. It may not be as visceral as it once was or it may be hidden in a nest of subtle code words, but it hasn’t completely gone away.
“A lot of the criticism (Newton) is receiving is unfortunate and racially based,” Moon told CBS Sports.com last month. “I thought we were all past this. I don’t see other quarterbacks in the draft being criticized by the media or fans about their smile or called a phony. He’s being held to different standards from white quarterbacks. I thought we were past all this stuff about African-American quarterbacks, but I guess we’re not.”
But that said, Newton has to realize what everyone in black America from the man who runs the corner store to the president of the United States has realized: he’s going to have to suck it up and work twice as hard as his contemporaries. His mistakes will be more glaring than his successes. Folks will throw the failure of JaMarcus Russell and the struggles of Vince Young in his face if he has a tough time or has one of those games where he tosses three interceptions. I asked Newton during his post-draft press conference if he had a lot to prove considering all scrutiny and criticism that he’s received dating back to late in his final year at Auburn. If anything, his response tells me that he has the right attitude.
“I’m not trying to prove nothing to no one that I’m not trying to prove to myself, and I understand that I’m my biggest critic.You know, I understand and try to fight and I try to battle from that, restraining myself to listen to how people critique me,” Newton said. “But it happens and at the end of the day, I can’t go to sleep not knowing that I didn’t get better particular day; that I didn’t push myself towards where I know I want to be.”
Having that kind of attitude is a good first step for Newton. Here are five things that I think Newton needs to do be successful in the NFL and not go the way of Russell, Matt Leinart, Ryan Leaf and numerous others.
Become a student of the game: From day one, Newton has to hit the ground running and immerse himself in the Panthers playbook with all the subtleties of the NFL game and study film over and over again. Learn the personnel of his own team as wells as his opponents. Newton should know that playbook better than his offensive coordinator and his head coach.
If possible, avoid the training camp holdout: I know that’s a ploy by agents and players to gain leverage from owners for more money, but Newton needs to be on the field developing chemistry with his backs and receivers. Holding out as an untested rookie will only put him further behind the learning curve in his development as a quarterback.
Be a professional, have a thick skin and be patient in the face of adversity: Playing for a team that won just two games, Newton will not come in right away and lead his team to the Super Bowl. Thing aren’t going to come easy at this level. He’s going to have his share of bad games during the process of his growth. The media, in rightly doing its job, will call him to the carpet on it. Handle it like a man and acknowledge the mistakes you made with class, don’t blame your teammates or throw your coaches under the bus. As an NFL quarterback, you will accept the credit for victory and take blame, fair or not, for the losses. For further information, hit up Donovan McNabb or Peyton Manning.
Don’t talk about it, be about it: As the face of the franchise, Newton has to be the first one at the facility at the crack of dawn and the last to leave it at night. The work ethic has to be second to none. Newton needs to be on time for team meetings and stay in good physical shape. What he does will set the tone for his team. McNabb used to work on timing with his wideouts a month before training camp. Back in the day, the great Johnny Unitas constantly worked with Hall of Fame receivers Raymond Berry and John Mackey after practice to work on timing.
Stay out of trouble: This should be a no-brainer for Newton considering his off-field issues led to his transfer from the University of Florida. I don’t mind a guy having a social life and enjoying himself , but don’t let it be so crazy that it lands you on the police blotter and make you a distraction to your team. Stay away from TMZ cameras. Don’t give your critics and detractors the ammunition to beat you over the head if you do something stupid. Talk to guys like Michael Vick about what happens when your off-field issues come to a head.