CHARLOTTE — They don't give you the first pick in the draft for perfect attendance. It comes with struggle. That's perhaps the nice way of describing the 2010 Panthers.
Now, the reward was a franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, the kind of player that transformed the trajectory of the organization, one of the most dynamic players in league history, a future MVP who propelled them to their second Super Bowl.
With that one move, everything changed.
"I've learned, and you see every example of it, that this is a quarterback-driven league," then-coach Ron Rivera, now with the Washington Commanders, said recently. "You've got to find that guy. And then you've got to build around him. And we did."
That part, in hindsight, was clear. And they nailed it.
But nothing about the journey from Point A to Point B was smooth or conventional, and it was a trip partly taken by inflatable raft. There were no maps, but they did have a "bootleg playbook." And the trip had plenty of dips and soaring highs.
While the idea of drafting Newton as opposed to any of the other alternatives in 2011 seems obvious now, it looked different at the time. And then he took them places they hadn't been. But getting there was complicated.
Before you get to the good stuff, you often have to go through the bad. And the 2010 Panthers were a Russian novel. That's perhaps the nicest way of describing it.
The Panthers had stability at the quarterback position for a long time with Jake Delhomme until injuries set in, and he was eventually released in March 2010. That led to an awkward interlude that included names such as Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore, and Brian St. Pierre. There's a book's worth of material about that season (Dostoevsky, maybe), which brought the John Fox era to a close with a 2-14 record — the only time in his career here he didn't win at least seven games in a season.
It was a fast fall after a stable eight-year run of consistent competence. And it was jarring for those who lived it – they could see glimmers of hope around the fringes, though that dark cloud was a big one.
But there was a lot of new stuff on the way. A new coaching staff, first and foremost. The consolation for the struggle was the No. 1 pick in the draft and the hope it brought an answer at quarterback.
"Obviously, the quarterback thing was the big question," long snapper JJ Jansen, who had arrived in a 2009 trade and has kept his job ever since, adroitly observed.
And there appeared to be an answer on the horizon.
The quarterback hunt was complicated when Stanford's Andrew Luck decided to stay in school, though most believed he'd have been a slam dunk No. 1 pick. But four days after the 2010 season, when Luck made that announcement, left plenty of time to see if there was an alternative.
And then, something interesting happened. The Panthers started digging around the players who actually were making themselves available for selection, and the more they looked, the more they liked that one guy.
Newton had just led Auburn to a national championship, but for some reason, he wasn't considered an obvious choice at the time. It wasn't because of his play; he had singlehandedly dragged Auburn to a title. Only one of his offensive teammates was drafted at all after that year (seventh-round tackle and Panthers legend Lee Ziemba). It was all him. And it was spectacular.
But it seemed like all anyone could talk about that spring was the laptop incident that led him to leave Florida, allegations his father was taking money to influence his recruiting (when you think about it in the context of current NIL rules, such things seem quaint in hindsight), or potential ego issues with a player who said he dreamed of being "an entertainer and icon." Looking back, there were a lot of code words used when talking about Newton that spring, and much less talk about actual football evaluations.
Today, it looks like a no-brainer to draft Newton first overall in a draft that featured quarterback options that included Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker. In 2011, it was a brainer.
Whatever your opinion of general manager Marty Hurney, the former newspaper man-turned-GM, he began doing what he did best during that winter and spring. He was scouting. Or reporting. They're kind of the same thing.
Hurney won't talk about it now. He has refused to comment on the Panthers since leaving the organization in December 2020 (he's now a senior football executive with Washington). "We not me," he said in his trademark grumble during a recent call, apologizing but making it clear he wasn't talking about this story, no matter how well it turned out.
Rivera was happy to talk about how instrumental his former GM was in the process, crediting Hurney with filtering through the noise about the perceived issues and focusing on what was real — that Newton was clearly the best player, and he was sitting right there in front of them.
"You know, we did a lot of homework. And Marty drove that," Rivera said. "So he was looking at things, and you'd look at this other stuff, and he'd say: "Don't waste your time over here. Look at this. Let's focus on this.'
"We identified who the top quarterbacks were coming out that we felt, and then we did all our homework on it. And we spent a lot of time with them."
Much like the Panthers did this year, Hurney and Rivera and company hit the road, traveling to interview coaches and players and everyone who knew these quarterbacks, poring over the film, really grinding.
"And then what happened was, the more we looked at stuff, I mean, it just kept pointing back to all the numbers," Rivera said.
Oh yeah, the numbers. Newton threw for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns (with just seven interceptions). He also ran for 1,473 yards and 20 more touchdowns. Auburn went 14-0 that year and beat previously undefeated Oregon for the national championship.
Football has a fantastic ability to overcomplicate things, even when they are simple. What should have been clear took some time to convince people, including themselves. Just before the draft, Hurney and Rivera took separate trips to meet with Newton and his family and got back together at the office the Sunday before the draft and reached the same conclusion.
"He flew out to Georgia and spent the day with the whole family, then he came back he said your turn," Rivera recalled. "So then I flew out and spent time together with the family. And then I came back. And we got together, and he said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Marty, all this stuff about him, I don't see it. This young man is driven to be great. And I think we have to really consider him as our number one guy.' He said, 'OK, I didn't want to influence you. But on my trip, I felt the same way.'
"And that's when we had the clarity. That's when we said, you know, this is our guy."
Choosing Newton, as complicated as some people made it, was actually the easy part. Getting him on the field was a little more tricky.
Because of the lockout that stretched from mid-March to late July, he wasn't going to enjoy a normal offseason of meetings with his new coaches or workouts at Bank of America Stadium with his teammates. The rules of the lockout precluded contact, but a temporary injunction in late April opened the doors just a crack the weekend of the draft.
Veteran left tackle Jordan Gross was one of the leaders of the team, and he knew it was important to gather as much information as possible during that brief window.
Basically, they were trying to make things as regular as possible, but nothing was normal that offseason, including Gross and center Ryan Kalil's attempts at espionage.
"When that (temporary injunction) happened, we ran in there and got like a bootleg copy of some playbook," Gross said. "It was like the basics of what we thought we were going to run. So there was like pass protection stuff and some of the run game, like just the wording. We weren't allowed to talk to any coaches at all. I mean, you're explaining this to Cam, trying to teach a rookie quarterback.
"We did almost no installation as a team ourselves because we didn't even really know what we were installing. Right? I mean, it was nuts."
(Also, if you know anything about Gross and Kalil in those days, it's easy to picture John Belushi's Bluto from "Animal House" breaking into Dean Wormer's office under cover of darkness when you imagine the mission to acquire anything resembling guidance on the new offense. In addition to being great players and team leaders, they were also comic relief.)
With the appropriated knowledge in tow, Gross and guard Travelle Wharton organized players-only workouts at Charlotte Christian High School. Gross called Ricky Proehl and Wesley Walls so they'd have some "coaches" on the field to direct traffic, but the whole thing was very thrown-together-on-the-fly. Gross recalled getting a good rate on field rentals, but they still had plenty of out-of-pocket expenses, such as hiring freelance athletic trainers, and Gross figured they spent a good bit of their own money to try to replicate what they usually enjoyed in the workplace.
"I mean, it wasn't millions or anything, but we spent tens of thousands of dollars on that stuff," Gross said.
It wasn't a fully formed playbook — remember, this was a brand new staff, with Rivera just hired as head coach and Rob Chudzinski brought in as his offensive coordinator — but it gave the players a few ideas to bounce off each other when they gathered.
"We were just really kind of like guessing what Chud wanted to do," running back Jonathan Stewart said. "Especially the RPO stuff.
"We were basically just out there kind of winging it."
But the people that were out there formed some degree of the core of the team Newton would work with. Before the lockout started, they signed veteran tight end Jeremy Shockey after the Saints released him. So he was there, along with Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, and a solid offensive line that included Gross, Wharton, Kalil, and Geoff Hangartner.
Stewart and Williams had put up big numbers behind that line in the past, And Stewart had worked with a running quarterback at Oregon with Dennis Dixon, but he realized quickly that Newton was very different.
"I mean, me coming from the offense that I ran in Oregon, I knew immediately once we were getting Cam, that our running game was going to be a problem for a lot of people," Stewart said with a laugh. "Especially him with his size. You know, seeing him in person for the first time, I just remembered how, how large he was. His handshake was huge. Like, his kneecaps were huge. Just abnormally, just a large person.
"And being able to move that way. To have me, DeAngelo, and then to add him to the mix? That's like; this is a heavy backfield. ... Yeah."
It was still an incomplete team, but it gave Newton a chance to get to know some of his new people, and they could tell there were possibilities there that never existed before.
But as long as the players union and the owners couldn't agree, there was only so much that could be done.
There was no free agency prior to the draft that year since the lockout began on March 12. So other than bringing in Shockey (a free spirit with his own unique energy who played for Chudzinski at Miami) on March 3, the Panthers were limited in what they could do. Draft picks were the only transactions allowed during the lockout. So everyone was in limbo.
So, in addition to the workouts, Gross and Wharton also tried to do some team building.
Jansen recalled the team's trip to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where he found himself among a group of people so diverse it seemed like the set-up to one of Kalil's television shows (the former center's a big-time producer now).
"I found myself in a raft with Travelle and Jeremy Shockey and Cam Newton," Jansen recalled. "Naturally. I was in my third year, still so young, and it's like, wow, this is wild. This is a great time. No cameras, just a regular group of people who would ordinarily be together.
"It was a wild time. You know, we were just we were all trying to figure it out the best way to create some bonding. Because when this lockout ends, you know you're going to go to training camp, and it's kind of on."
When the lockout finally ended on July 25, every team's personnel apparatus had to shake off months of rust and cram an entire offseason into a week.
And Hurney and cap-and-contract guy Rob Rogers were busy.
The moratorium on transactions was lifted on July 29, and the Panthers turned on the money hose. Any previous hesitance to spend was gone, and they caught up with vigor.
Williams, defensive end Charles Johnson, and linebacker James Anderson got contracts in those first few hours, with Johnson, in particular, the beneficiary of some haste (reports of interest from Atlanta helped land him the nickname "Big Money" among his teammates). Linebackers Thomas Davis and Beason got contract extensions as well.
They signed unrestricted free agent quarterback Derek Anderson to be a backup to Newton and brought in a fleet of undrafted rookies (including eventual starting right tackle Byron Bell), among many, many other transactions.
It would be polite to call it chaotic, and trust me, the people making those moves at the time were not so careful with their words.
But for all the dollars flying around, the best expenditure was one that involved some draft capital as well as cash.
For some reason, the Bears didn't want tight end Greg Olsen anymore. Actually, the reason was Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz didn't really have much use for a pass-catching tight end. Martz, the former offensive coordinator of the Rams' "Greatest Show On Turf," had a different theory of how to move the ball around, and it didn't particularly involve Olsen, especially since the former first-round pick was closing in on a new contract of his own. Olsen had caught 194 passes in four years in Chicago, so it's not like he wasn't productive. But he wasn't viewed as a fit for Martz, so they started listening to offers.
The Bears traded Olsen to the Panthers for a third-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft (73rd overall). There's no other way to describe it. It was a steal for Hurney, one of his best pieces of business. And he was the guy who nailed first-rounder after first-rounder for seven straight years (Julius Peppers, Gross, Chris Gamble, Davis, Williams, Beason, and Stewart), and though his reputation often misses this, hit on enough other later picks such as Kalil and Johnson and Anderson and many others to stock a team that would become one of the best in the NFC.
But with Olsen around, things just looked different.
He became the target who unlocked the potential of Newton and would become the first tight end in league history to go over 1,000 yards for three straight seasons (2014-16).
Along with wide receiver Steve Smith (more on him in a moment), it was the makings of an offense full of possibilities for Chudzinski at the wheel.
"Well, yeah, except we were locked out. That made us less than excited about having zero offseason, right?" Gross said of the team they assembled around Newton. "We had Steve, and we had Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo, and we had me and Kalil and Wharton. There was a lot of foundational leadership, and the vibe was good. We had just come off of the worst season ever. It's 2-14, the Jimmy Clausen explosion and Foxy got let go. We were downtrodden and all that stuff.
"So drafting Cam absolutely injected belief, excitement, and life into that team. Couple that with Ron Rivera, which was just an awesome yin to the yang of Cam. And Chud, and Mike Shula, and (offensive line coach) John Matsko comes in, and they were like, 'Hey, let's run some option stuff. Let's really get the RPO game going and see what happens.'
"It seems like they did a hell of a job putting together a team to be successful right away with a rookie."
That doesn't mean it didn't include growing pains. Gross complained about having to play far too many snaps in the preseason (they wanted Newton to get ready, but also to the regular season in one piece), and the process moved quickly.
And there were also some personalities at play.
The Panthers had one alpha in the locker room already in Smith, the All-Pro receiver. But it was always a delicate dance with him. He wasn't at the Charlotte Christian workouts because he had other things on his mind. He had some family medical concerns at the time, and he wasn't sure he was long for the Panthers. He had put his house on the market, and there were moments when he thought he'd come out of the lockout on a new team himself.
But Smith remained and became part of something that was obviously very different than what anyone had witnessed in 2010.
"I mean, we had a lot of we had a lot of good players too, and have a good system that that we had guys that knew how to play the right way," Smith said. "Shockey knew how to play. Greg Olsen, myself, and then you add Cam and his athleticism, all that stuff, man. So it was, at times, simple. And then, at times, it would be off because we didn't have an offseason either. So it was a chemistry roller coaster.
"You lack all the time together because of the lockout, right? Because of the inability to get a playbook, the inability to have traditional offseason workouts, and then everybody's new. That's tough. So you had moments where it looked like it was great. And then we had moments where we looked like we hadn't been together very long.
"So that's the emotional roller coaster, right? Well, the chemistry roller coaster."
Smith and Newton might have never been close friends, but the chance to put one of the game's top wide receivers with a dual threat like Newton created unlimited possibilities. The personalities were a thing Rivera and Hurney had to manage (and it took plenty of work), but the talent made it worth the chemistry experiment.
In 2010, Smith had his worst healthy season, with just 46 catches for 554 and two touchdowns, as part of the league's worst offense.
In 2011, he rebounded immediately, with 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns.
Having a quarterback, as it turned out, helped.
And the immediate results Newton delivered teased at what he'd provide in years to come.
The Panthers were still a work in progress on defense (things would get better the next year when linebacker Luke Kuechly arrived in the first round, another jackpot for Hurney), but in those first two games of Newton's career, they gained 477 yards against the Cardinals, and 475 the next week against the Packers.
Newton threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinals. Smith caught both of them, part of his eight catches for 178 yards. He might not have been certain of his future in Charlotte, but he was reborn.
The next week against the Packers, Newton threw for 432 and a touchdown but also threw three picks. This thing was going to swing wildly at first, but things were different. There was, as Gross mentioned, a spark that was evident.
"Chud's offense was there to be explosive," Jansen said. "And a lot of big chunk plays. I still don't think it was tailored for Cam's best attributes. But when you go the first two games and throw for 850 yards and set the rookie record, that goes a long way in developing a quarterback's confidence and developing the team's confidence around the quarterback.
"The best way for quarterbacks, any player, to develop is to play, have a role and grow in the role. And I think whether that was a little bit of luck, a little bit of the right timing. He got off to a fast start, which allowed everyone to kind of have confidence and to continue to grow in his confidence."
For a thrown-together offense, it worked pretty well.
The Panthers ranked fifth in scoring and seventh in the league in total offense in 2011, which opened plenty of eyes.
For one, it got Chudzinski a head coaching job in Cleveland in 2013. It didn't go well. That's perhaps the nice way of describing it.
But the foundation-laying he was part of also represented the first steps in what would become a march to the best three-year run in Panthers franchise history.
Along the way, there were changes. Rivera struggled to get his footing early, and people wondered if he was up to the job. He made some adjustments, became "Riverboat Ron," and it became clear he was. Hurney was let go midway through the 2012 season. His replacement, Dave Gettleman, was there to make some changes, and one of them was cutting Smith after the 2013 season, creating some space in the locker room for Newton to continue to grow as a leader.
And Newton did grow into one of the league's top players.
From 2013 to 2015, the Panthers went 34-13-1 and won three straight NFC South division titles. They went 15-1 in 2015 en route to the Super Bowl.
Newton was sensational that year, throwing for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns and running for 10 more touchdowns. Of the 50 votes for league MVP that year, Newton got 48 of them. Tom Brady and Carson Palmer got one each. It wasn't actually that close.
Things didn't stay at that level, but things never do.
Physical realities come calling for every football player, and Newton was no different. The shoulder problems that came to an alarming end with the 2018 hit in Pittsburgh had been gradually becoming an issue well before then.
But with his talent and the cast they put around him, the Panthers made the most of it while they could, doing everything short of winning a Super Bowl that a team could do.
Looking back, it was a special era.
It's a miracle it came together, but all the pieces fit perfectly for a moment.
"I think the mindset was let's give our quarterback some answers," Stewart said of those early days. "And when you look at all the teams that are successful and win Super Bowls the last several years, they've all had that really good tight end to go with the quarterback, and in Greg, we had that. With his ability to run the ball, with me and DeAngelo, ...
"We knew with Cam's ability; we could be next-level."