Newton centerpiece for change in Carolina


Ron Rivera had been a candidate for a lot of head jobs. This one, the one he got, appears to have been well worth the wait.

Rivera is the rookie head coach of a Carolina Panthers team that is celebrating the breakout performance of the NFL's first overall draft choice, Cam Newton. In his first-ever pro game, Newton threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a touchdown in a 28-21 loss at Arizona.

"People are congratulating me and we lost the game," Rivera told Packers media during a conference call on Wednesday.

That's what Newton has done for pro football in Charlotte. His presence and his prospects for the future have energized a Panthers franchise with a 73,000-seat stadium and a team that is coming off a 2-14 season.

"I feel fortunate to have this opportunity. They were looking for a defensive-minded coach. It's exciting to be married to a young football team," Rivera said.

Being married to a franchise quarterback isn't a bad thing, either.

What can you tell us about your quarterback, veteran Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith was asked?

"His name is Cam. He's 6-6, 240 pounds and he has a rifle arm. He shocked people and he made an old guy look like he can still play," Smith said.

The "old guy" caught eight passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns, one of which was for 77 yards. Smith has been the face of the Panthers' offense for a long time, but it was on an offense last season that struggled mightily at the quarterback position.

"There are a lot of downfield routes. I'm excited about that," Smith said.

"He knows the responsibility of being the first overall pick. He has the opportunity to choose the direction he goes," Smith said, referring to Newton and the boom-bust potential that goes with being the first pick of the draft. "He doesn't want to be on the wrong side of that stat."

Newton will lead the Panthers into a game that will go a long way toward measuring where Rivera's team is in its development. It's a potential statement game, a game on which the young Panthers could use as a foundation for its future.

"The measuring stick is against these guys. You have to evaluate yourself against the best and the best, right now, is the Green Bay Packers," Smith said.

Carolina will host the Packers in a 1 p.m. ET kickoff on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. It is the Panthers' home-opener.

"Does this one have a little more flair to it? Absolutely, because these are the world champions," Rivera said, referring to the Packers.

"Around Charlotte, there's a buzz," Smith said.

The buzz, of course, is for Newton.

"He was the least pro-ready and he had a lot of things to fix," Smith said of the rap on Newton relative to the quarterbacks available in last April's draft. "That was before he ever threw a pass. Now, after he's thrown a lot of passes for 422 yards, I think he's going to be pretty good."

How good he'll be, remains to be seen over the next several years. How good he is, will be decided on Sunday. Yes, the Packers are the measuring stick.

"He's not going to sneak up on anybody now. It's going to be tough," Rivera said.

Rivera has, in football coaching parlance, changed the culture on the Panthers. He's introduced new ways and Newton, of course, is the centerpiece for change in Charlotte.

"Brings a different mentality," Smith said of Rivera, the former Chargers defensive coordinator. "Change is tough. Change is hard to adapt to. It may be tough and not exactly what you want, but it may be tough and exactly what you need. It's like going to a spa." Additional coverage - Sept. 14

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