CHARLOTTE – Cam Newton is in his happy place.
Or at least he will be come Sunday, when he'll officially begin his eighth season as quarterback of the Carolina Panthers - as hard as that may be to believe.
"I feel like a rookie," Newton said. "I'm happy. I miss football. I miss running out of the tunnel. I miss scoring touchdowns and Sunday giveaways and that Monday feeling of 'Victory Mondays' followed by going around uptown Charlotte and different areas and seeing people wearing their Carolina gear.
"That feeling is contagious."
And that feeling can be fleeting. It can't be captured for the months upon months between meaningful games, so Newton sure doesn't want to let the first opportunity for full-on football joy pass him by when the Panthers open the season Sunday at 4:25 p.m. against the Dallas Cowboys.
"I'm just trying to make sure at 8 p.m. Sunday night that the Panthers are victorious," Newton said when asked to discuss his prognosis for the entirety of the season. "I ain't got time to be looking into February; I don't even know what tomorrow brings, let alone February."
But Newton does know what Sunday will bring: opportunity. His first chance to play for real since a loss to the Saints in an NFC Wild Card game eight months ago, and just the second chance in his career to open the season at Bank of America Stadium.
Newton has never known the thrill of starting a season with a home victory, having fallen 12-7 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks in his only previous shot back in 2013.
"We know we're playing a team – I'm being modest when I say this – that has a really good fan base, but we have a good fan base, too," Newton said. "So when third down comes, when touchdowns are coming, when we need everything as far the excitement and the yelling and cheering and screaming from our fans, we know we can expect that come Sunday."
He expects the same of himself and his teammates.
"Nothing has changed as far as winning football games. That's the most important stat in all of sports – winning," he said. "Anything I can do to help this team win, that's what I'm all about."
Newton's words were in reference to perhaps the biggest change in his football world since this time last year – his offensive coordinator. Mike Shula filled that role the past five seasons after Rob Chudzinski guided Newton his first two seasons.
Now that chair is occupied by Norv Turner, the architect of the offense that Chudzinski brought and built around Newton's skill set – and the architect of two Super Bowl-winning offenses in Dallas back in the day.
"All in all, the transition has been extremely smooth and I'm excited about what's to come for this team," Newton said. "I'm extremely comfortable and extremely optimistic as far as Sunday and pretty much everybody firing on all cylinders.
"Hopefully we can be in midseason form."
But what will midseason form look like for this team? The Panthers are coming off an 11-5 season but were the lone NFC South team of the three that made the playoffs not to win a postseason game. The Saints and Falcons showed no signs of going away this offseason.
The Panthers, in response, worked hard to upgrade their offense around Newton, adding proven veterans like Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright at receiver and C.J. Anderson at running back, as well as talented rookies like DJ Moore at receiver and Ian Thomas at tight end. And, they added Turner.
But what will it add up to?
"We don't know what we have yet," Newton said. "That's why Sunday is so important for everybody – because we finally find out.
"I’m saddened to hear about little Kurtco (Curtis Samuel), and my prayers are with him, but we still have five receivers we think extremely high of. They know what they're supposed to do; I know what I'm supposed to do; Greg (Olsen) knows what he's supposed to. This whole team knows their role and their responsibility, and we're just trying to max out on that.
"Before we start to foreshadow things or expecting things, we're all just trying to focus on winning a football game. If that comes, a lot of things will show their hand."
Football is back, and Cam couldn't be happier – as long as the Panthers are able to take care of the business of winning.
"I'm excited. I think everybody is excited about this opportunity," he said. "There's a lot of energy, great energy, around the city that I've been feeling.
"I'm just ready to go against somebody other than Carolina Panthers. It's been a long time, it feels like. I think we're ready."