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Cam Newton's leadership crucial to Panthers' continued growth

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- He towered above fellow flyers as he waited in the security line at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Thursday, rocking a neon yellow Under Armour jacket with a purple hat and a pair of shades.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton cannot hide here, which perhaps is why he doesn't seem to try. The people around him are gawking, mostly in silence, as they wind together like a snake through a maze of nylon ropes. It is slightly awkward -- all of these looks amid the silence -- but only until Newton, traveling by himself, calls out a young, onlooking female loud enough for most of the line to hear.

"How do I look?" he says before throwing his arm around the shorter shoulders of a man who appeared to be a total stranger next to him.

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Everyone laughed and everyone smiled, but nobody smiled quite like Newton. This, after all, is his city. This was his security line. And, oh by the way, yes, he did look good.

After just one year as Carolina's quarterback -- although the term "just" doesn't seem so fitting, given all the records that have fallen since he arrived -- Newton has transformed this sports scene into his own. The question, of course, is whether his rise will continue. It is a question, though, that no longer deserves any of our doubts. We can still wonder what remains ahead for Newton, but not in terms of his own ability and potential. Instead, the focus now shifts toward his team's overall success -- whether his Panthers are capable of accomplishing what needs to be done for them to become a top-tier organization in the second year of a major makeover.

"To have a little continuity in what we're trying to do as an offense, not having to change it so quickly, I think that's going to be huge," coach Ron Rivera said. "I think Cam came in with the right attitude. I think the coaching staff, with what they're trying to develop as far as his skills and his ability, has been tremendous."

This, of course, still heavily involves necessary growth from Newton -- but Year 2 of this young and promising career might actually be as much about his growth as a leader as it is about his ability as a player. Last week, Newton told Yahoo! Sports that he thought he was a "bad teammate" as a rookie, citing a general attitude that included a moping demeanor after unsuccessful plays or losses. During an interview with the NFL Media Group last Thursday, he expanded on those thoughts.

"It was just some things I feel like I could have done differently," Newton said. "I think that's my overall maturation in Year 2 -- just analyzing what I did last year, some things that were good, some things that were unacceptable.

"Just being accountable of my actions, that's one. Two, just being a trusted teammate, not moping on the past because the past can't do anything for you."

This mentality, if truly desired and implemented, might be the best sign of all that Newton and his team are headed for the right place. Quite frankly, he's right. There was a specific instance last year, in the locker room after a loss, when tight end Greg Olsen put his hand on Newton's dejected shoulder to offer some words of encouragement. But Newton batted Olsen's hand away, not wanting any such affection.

It's a small example -- and some might even say no player should accept a loss with ease -- but it's that type of mentality that Newton is talking about. As young as he might be, Newton's attitude is contagious. Everyone wants to follow him. And with the proper leadership, he is going to steer this Panthers team in the right direction.

To date, the Panthers' coaching staff -- including Rivera, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, quarterbacks coach Mike Shula -- has done an excellent job in the meticulous development of Newton. They recognized his freakish skill set and applied the perfect amount of pressure to maximize his rookie worth.

So, now what? Bridging the gap between bad and decent, as the Panthers collectively did last season, is far easier than crossing the much more treacherous span between decent and great. And within a division that has shown serious development and growth over the past few years, that's no doubt going to be the case.

After grossly underachieving last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look to rebound under new coach Greg Schiano. The Atlanta Falcons are seemingly closer as a whole to making a deep playoff run. And the New Orleans Saints, as long as they get Drew Brees back into the mix, should still be a playoff contender even without coach Sean Payton in the driver's seat.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are clearly a competitive, rising team on offense -- even if they remain without a proven, big-bodied receiver to serve as a true complement to Steve Smith. If the Panthers are going to make the leap to becoming a playoff contender, it is instead a matter of whether the development on defense can match last year's offensive leap. And after spending their first pick on Newton in the 2011 draft, the Panthers addressed the other side of the ball with their first selection of 2012, taking linebacker Luke Kuechly. That's a start, but there's still plenty of work to do on a defense that finished 27th in points allowed and 28th in total yardage.

Still, Carolina is definitely trending upward in the wake of finding a franchise quarterback. The proof of this path is undeniable: Carolina started 2-8 last year before finishing on a 4-2 run. And five of those first eight losses were decided by one touchdown or less.

As we accept this growth in the Panthers, it's impossible to not marvel at Newton's immediate impact. But this is just the beginning. The task ahead remains daunting, but it's one that Newton seems clearly willing to embrace.

Can the Panthers win 10 games in 2012? Absolutely. Can they make the playoffs? Absolutely. But if they are going to achieve one or both feats, the Panthers will need more than just elite play from Newton. They also will require elite leadership.

When Newton was standing in that security line last week, he was completely comfortable in the spotlight -- charismatic and energetic in a fashion that made everyone embrace him. He has it inside him. He has it everywhere he goes.

Consequently, as Newton continues to mature as a leader, the Panthers will continue to grow as a team.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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