Newton takes first step toward earning his keep in Carolina

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Friday morning started with a chance meeting in the parking lot of the Panthers' facility with second-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The afternoon started with a planned news conference inside the Panthers' facility with Clausen's eventual replacement, No. 1 overall draft pick Cam Newton.

One came to work with no fanfare. The other came to discuss getting to work in front of an auditorium of media, team employees, a Make-A-Wish-Foundation child, and two team cheerleaders. It was an odd juxtaposition.

This time a year ago, it was Clausen -- embroiled in so much doubt that he dropped into the second round -- that was the projected quarterback of the future. Soon, his future could be with another team or watching Newton learn -- and maybe struggle -- the same way he did in Carolina's 2-14 season in 2010.

Clausen showed a lot of class by wishing his new teammate good luck via text message shortly after Newton was drafted Thursday. Newton, in retelling of the text and saying they actually had a semi-lengthy and friendly exchange, referred to Clausen as "Mr. Clausen."

A bridge was already built out of an awkward situation.

That's a good first step.

Newton also said he was going to dive into his playbook, "AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, in all caps." He told a story about a pre-draft meeting at owner Jerry Richardson's house in which he was asked if he wanted to be great. Newton said Friday he not only wants to be great but is also aware of the steps he has to take to get there. The tales made for good copy and gave Newton a victory in the won-loss column of news conferences.

While also saying he's thought about being the face of the franchise, he didn't make the vital mistake of saying anything that propped up "entertainer and icon" flashbacks. Instead, in response to a question about being "The Face," he referenced how he's dealt with being under immense scrutiny, not about taking the Panthers to a new level or giving them a new identity.

First impressions are almost always good because people are going to cut you some slack. That is, everyone except for teammates. I've seen free agents and rookies join teams and immediately behave as if they were the missing link. Newton, at best, is just a link. As coach Ron Rivera pointed out, a lot of other things have to work for Newton and Carolina to succeed.

If Newton starts thinking he's bigger than Jonathan Stewart, Steve Smith, Jon Beason, Ryan Kalil, or even Clausen, he's going to get mushed -- quickly. Then everything the Panthers put at stake in drafting him will go sour.

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Kalil said that he's okay with whatever Newton wants to be as long as he helps them win games, but Newton won't do that unless he endears himself to his teammates and coaches. Working his tail off and lying as low as possible would be a start.

So would not trying to outdo himself, as he does sometimes when he tries to sound a little more brilliant than needed. I'd suggest that Newton watch his introductory news conference and see how muddled things got when he tried to do too much or rushed things -- like what could happen on a football field or, worse, off it.

He should extrapolate the simplest thing he said, which happened to be his last comment, and realize how poignant it was and follow that template.

"I'm trying to be the best," Newton said. "I strive to be great, but that also comes with knowing my role and staying in my lane. I understand it's not going to be something that's going to be instant, like instant grits. It's more like collard greens. You've got to let it just sit and wait. It's going to be a fun process. I'm just going to embrace this whole thing."

He should, but he also needs to take note. Clausen was at the team facility before any other player -- it's what the quarterback does.

Clausen wanted to meet his coaches and get at his playbook before anyone else despite knowing the team hired someone to take his job. By all indications, Clausen's going to make Newton earn it. With that, he's also doing his team a favor, because if Newton is given the job then he'll feel entitled.

If he earns it, then everyone -- fans, teammates and coaches -- will know Newton is serious about wanting to be great.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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