CHARLOTTE – Cam Newton knows what it's like to face criticism, and he's learned how to best respond to it.
This offseason, coming off a 12-4 season and an NFC South championship, Newton himself hasn't been in the crosshairs of naysayers.
It only feels like it.
"Come game time, there's no doubt in my mind that every single person will be ready to go," Newton said, responding to the barrage of criticism aimed at the Panthers' offensive linemen and wide receivers. "Whenever that ball is snapped, I have full confidence in Nate Chandler, full confidence in Byron Bell that those guys will get the job done. I have full confidence in all my receivers as well.
"My job is to be the best leader so that when I go in that huddle and look at everybody, they have no doubt in their mind that Cam Newton is going to lead us down and get six points."
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Yes, they no longer have Steve Smith or the other three wide receivers that caught passes last season. Yes, they no longer have left tackle staple Jordan Gross, and they didn't draft any tackles in response to his retirement.
Yes, there are questions, as Rivera readily admitted when asked about being a hunted team, but Newton can't wait to help his teammates emphatically answer those questions.
"You don't need to go in there and tell those guys, 'Hey, you're projected the sorriest receivers in the NFL.' We already know," Newton said. "To hear some things that have been said, it's actually as if you got picked up from the streets, like saying, 'Hey, you want to play receiver?'
"Those guys already have that fire in their eyes, and I would rather those guys be like that and for them to go out there and bust their tails like they've been doing. It's kind of like a slap in not only their faces but in my face as well. But we accept the challenge, and we have fun with it. That's our chip on our shoulder."
Over his first three seasons in the league, Newton learned from Smith and Gross about how to deal with doubt. The chip on Smith's shoulder is so big that it has a chip of its own, while Gross was a master at uniting a team toward a common cause.
Now that they're gone, Newton is taking their lead, as he must with unproven players being asked to fill their voids. Take, for example, rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
"I feel as if he's going to push me. Not verbally, but in that he's taking my leadership role higher," Newton said. "Here's a guy that we drafted in the first round. I don't have the luxury of having a veteran receiver – supposedly – to my left. I had Steve for a long time, who helped me out a lot. I had Brandon LaFell for a long time, who understood and was in this offense the same time as me.
"Now I've got a lot of guys leaving this offense, so my leadership has to rise. I have to accept this challenge. I'm embracing this role, and it's making me better."
New names will be making plays around Newton in 2014. Many of them aren't household names - yet – but the Panthers quarterback with a household name firmly believes the Panthers won't crumble like a house of cards come Week 1.
"The things that have been said, the reports, who cares? Because at the end of the day, we will be ready to play football, Carolina Panthers football," Newton said. "Everybody has an opportunity to do something great. How foolish it would be of us to let that opportunity slip through our hands without making the most of it."