CHARLOTTE -- You can't see it, but it's there.
Standing on Cam Newton's surgically repaired right shoulder is an angel. It's not new. It's just lost a lot of battles over the years.
That's because the devil standing on Newton's left shoulder is loud and constantly chatty. In other words – a lot like Newton. And maybe that's why, despite years of trying to rein himself in, the Panthers quarterback has too often listened to the voice suggesting he has to make every play.
"There has never been a time when I've been on a team – I don't care if I'm playing softball – where I haven't been looked upon to be that guy," the franchise's most important player says a couple of hours after he was cleared to start throwing again. "And it's hard when it's 14-10, we need a touchdown, it's third-and-2, you're looking at coach, you get the play call, and it's like, 'Come on!'
"It's no different than LeBron, Kobe, Jordan or even Brady. My biggest gift in a certain respect is a curse, too."
Of course, it is different, mostly because those four all-time greats have totaled 19 championship rings. Plus, part of the greatness of both LeBron James and Tom Brady is an understanding of how and why to use teammates – a perspective Michael Jordan added as his Bulls piled up titles.
If in Newton's mind, his biggest gift is a rabid competitiveness and not his freakish size and athleticism, the two are 1a and 1b. Combined, they give that little devil a solid argument.
"There was a reason I picked my jersey number. There was a reason why No. 1 is on my back every single day," Newton says. "Those are high standards that I set for myself, and I always have to remind myself that anything less is unacceptable.
"You don't play this game to be second-best. I'm playing to dominate a game that a lot of people try to dominate and they're not able to dominate because I'm still playing."
Imagine if you took just those quotes and turned them into a story. They'd likely get eye rolls Newton's confidence often elicits. That's why, the older he gets, the more important it is that he listens to his angel.
"The thing I have to realize is my job is not necessarily to always be the playmaker," Newton says. "I have to give other people opportunities to make plays. That's the hardest thing about maturation, especially for me.
"So having more comfort in trusting the guys around me is the biggest thing. Trust and knowing my job is giving everybody a chance and letting them do their job as well."
Sweet Tooth Slowdown
Shortly before the Lucky Charms-loving Newton sits down at his locker with a bowl of sliced bananas atop a cereal missing marshmallows, Curtis Samuel strolls through with a tastier treat. One of Newton's highly publicized new weapons, the 20-year-old receiver/running back is the youngest player on the Panthers' roster. That also makes him a reminder of who Newton, 28, can no longer be.
"Everybody knows when it comes to me, I'm going to have the gummy worms, candy – the good candy, too. The king-size, not just the snack, miniature size," he says with a childlike smile. "I'm notorious for having all the snacks. I'm the snack man. But I've focused this offseason with trying to be more fit through the latter part of the whole season.
"So (Samuel's) eating his donut – with sprinkles – and I'm like, 'You can't eat that right now, especially when I'm about to work out or weigh-in.'"
Newton, who since 2013 has attempted to balance his candy addiction with a main diet that mostly features seafood, claims he's "hands down" the thinnest he's been at this point in an offseason. He won't reveal what the scale reads, and while his listed weight of 245 pounds may still be generous, there's no question he's shed a good chunk since the end of the most disappointing season of his career.
"I don't want to lose strength, and it's not me wanting to lose weight to become faster," Newton says. "It's me realizing I'm not that same 21-year-old that came into this league that can eat a bag of gummies and then go out and play four quarters of football.
"I knew this day was going to come, and I know it's going to get worse, but that's the process of the league. I would hear Jordan Gross, Steve Smith, Jon Beason, even Thomas Davis to this day talking about certain things. 'You're getting old. You're going to see it one day.' Now I'm seeing it happen."
It's strange to think of Newton as old. But as relatively young as Carolina is as a franchise, the fact it took him just six seasons to become the team's all-time leader in passing AND rushing touchdowns says a lot about his wear and tear. For their part, the Panthers are finally determined to slow down Newton's on-field aging process. Or, at least, not to continue accelerating it.
The offense's offseason makeover manifested itself in many ways: Betting on a career resurgence for left tackle Matt Kalil, letting receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown sign elsewhere, and most notably, using the 8th and 40th overall picks in the draft on speedy hybrids Christian McCaffrey and Samuel.
"One thing I'm excited about is throwing so many different looks and having so many multifaceted players that can do different things," Newton says. "Catching, running, even throwing. It just puts so much pressure on the defense."
That sounds good in theory. But so does the devil when he's in your ear as the pass rush is bearing down.
Just last summer, Panthers Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson echoed the angel when he suggested his quarterback take more "layups." Newton then sputtered to career lows in completion percentage and passer rating. It didn't help that his offensive line was banged up for half the season and he played the final month with a partially torn rotator cuff.
Because Newton has been slow to change, the Panthers are making themselves adjust. It's too tempting to continue leaning on his superior athleticism, so they've committed to a plan that's less about zone-reads and deep drops and more about roll outs and quick passes.
"I look at a Curtis Samuel, I look at a Christian and all these guys that are new additions on this offense and it's on me now," Newton says.
"I look at the things that I need to work on – obviously getting the ball out of my hands – at times, it could've helped and I know that. That's all about growth."
The Thing About Rings
Whether it's playing to dominate versus letting others chip in, or a king-size bag of candy following a grilled fish dinner, Newton can be contradictory. But while he's long been an easy target of criticism – both on and off the field – he's much more self-aware than it may appear.
"The more I reflect on who I am or what I have become and what I can still become – I need to be better. I know I need to be better," Newton says. "I want to be better because me being my best me helps everything else around me, including this organization.
"Here I am at 28, and I'm probably the happiest I've ever been. Not saying that I've ever been depressed or anything, it's just life has come full circle. I rarely have days where I'm just, 'All right fellas, we're going out.' That's weird because I've always been such a social person."
It's not like Newton has turned into a hermit. Mostly, his social calendar is a lot different as a father, and he's now spending more time with teammates.
"Having a football team is no different than running a Fortune 500 company," Newton says. "If you don't like the person next to your cubicle, that's going to show. I'm not saying we've got guys on the team that hate each other; it's just I don't think we maximized knowing each other last year as we should have.
"Doing certain things off the field helps that. Going to Topgolf or going to concerts together, having game night, whatever – it's important. It makes guys realize you know this person outside of football and that relationship becomes stronger when you get into a game."
No matter how much Newton grows into adulthood, he'll always be polarizing. His footwork won't be perfect and he'll say things that will make many shake their heads. He claims he doesn't care about criticism, but he knows it's out there. He's accepted he'll never win over everybody – not in a locker room or in the media.
Cam will continue to be Cam because being himself is his crusade. But if he's going to be championship Cam, it's time he starts listening more to that angel.
"Man, I want a ring. I've gotten a ring everywhere I've been. Now I'm waiting here," Newton says. "I feel like I'm in my prime. My prime better be now. I don't want to have seen my best days – that's scary.
"When you look at quarterbacks and where I'm at right now, I want to commit everything to the game of football. I want my diet to display that. I want my life to display that. I don't want to look back when I'm 40 and be like, 'Dang, when I was 28 and we had this talent around us, I didn't maximize it.'"