You'd be hard pressed to find a player, coach, fan or media member that doesn't acknowledge Cam Newton's talent.
But talent has never been the issue with the Panthers quarterback. Carolina's decision to select Newton with the first-overall pick in the 2011 draft was controversial for psychological reasons.
While at the University of Florida in 2008, Newton stole a laptop and threw it out the window while being pursued by police. He was arrested for theft, and ultimately suspended from the football team. Three days prior to the Gators' national championship game against Oklahoma, Newton declared he was transferring to Blinn College.
While plenty of young athletes have overcome poor judgment and legal trouble, the decision to distance himself from his teammates – instead of support them in one of the biggest games in their lives – raised a red flag. Although he wasn't a serious individual contributor to the Urban Meyer's national champion Gators, Newton should have been there for his teammates.
Newton, however, saw his off-the-field issues and lack of contribution to the team's success as reasons to distance himself from the University of Florida. He could have waited until after the National Championship game to announce his transfer, but it was clear that individual plans took precedence over the best of interests of the team.
Flash forward four years, two national titles, one Heisman Trophy, one Rookie of the Year award and one Pro Bowl appearance; Newton is still being maligned for questionable leadership.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Atlanta native caught a lot of flak last season for his despondent sideline demeanor during times of struggle – particularly isolating himself from the rest of the team and draping a towel over his head. However, when he was playing well and things were clicking for the offense, Newton could be seen pacing the sidelines euphorically, communicating with teammates and flashing his million-dollar smile.
While the circumstances may have been different during his stint in Gainesville, his behavior with the Panthers – abandoning his team during an individual struggle – has essentially been the same.
Simply put, Newton has won with his team and lost as an individual. In several press conferences last season, he was quick to answer questions on how he can improve as a quarterback, but struggled to come up with an answer when asked how the entire offense can improve.
"I can’t talk about this offense, I can only talk about myself," Newton told reporters following last season's loss to Seattle. "What I can say about myself is that I am not playing football. Call it what you call it- Cameron Newton did not play good football today.”
The same question was asked following the loss against Dallas.
"I am going to bring a suggestion box, because I sure don’t know," Newton said. "The only thing I control is myself."
At the end of the day, though, nobody can go back and change the past. The most important question is this: How can Newton learn from those mistakes and become a leader?
Leaders make their teammates better, and as the quarterback of an NFL football team, he needs to understand what he can do to accomplish just that. This not only includes recognizing his teammates' strengths and weaknesses, but also knowing how to help maximize those strengths through his performance.
If you listen to the league's elite quarterbacks at post-game press conferences, they often address the goals of the team first – whether or not it reflects their individual performance.
New Orleans Saints quarterback – and future Hall of Famer – Drew Brees was asked about the struggles of his offensive line following last season's loss to Kansas City.
“There’s things we can do to help those guys. We aren’t going to sit there and take seven-step drop after seven-step drop and make it to where they have to protect all day," he told the media.
"We have to get into third-and-short situations- we got to get into better situations for those guys, we have to find ways to move the football and wear a defense down defensively. We got one-dimensional at the end and it allowed the defense to tee off against us."
Rather than talking his individual performance, Brees addressed the goals of the offense as a whole, and how the whole unit can improve to make the offensive line's job easier.
A leader also acknowledges the opposition, accounts for their strategy and makes adjustments. Many of these attributes are acquired with maturation and experience.
Right now, though, the most important thing for Newton to do is learn to control his emotions. As the leader of the offense, his body language has an impact on teammates and coaches. Like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and all the game's great quarterbacks, Newton needs to learn how to channel those emotions in the right way.
It remains to be seen whether Cam Newton is capable of becoming a great leader. But right now, he is nothing more than a really talented player.
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