CHARLOTTE — By the end, the foundation shook. Fans launched half-drunk cups of beer into the air, and if anyone objected to the shower, he was drowned out in the chorus of winning, a chorus conducted by one Cam Newton.
With his team up 49–15 with seconds remaining, Carolina’s quarterback had been pulled, and instead of waiting, instead of playing pensive, he stalked the Panthers sideline. He waved his arms and nodded his head and dove into the moment.
As he paced, the back of Newton’s jersey became scrunched, but there was no doubt as to the number. One. He’s worn it since his rookie season, worn it through two losing campaigns and his first playoff berth, a loss in the divisional round. He wore it last year for his first postseason win—over these same Cardinals—after a disappointing 7–8–1 record won his team the NFC South. And this year, he earned it. No one was more deserving of that single digit, a number Newton says he wears with pride.
There are so many ways to quantify Newton’s season: the 14 straight wins, the 15–1 record, the 3,837 passing yards, the 636 rushing yards. It’s an embarrassment of riches, of bruising runs and spot-on passes. Asked to grade his quarterback after the game, running back Jonathan Stewart didn’t hold back. “A-plus plus plus plus plus plus plus plus plus plus plus plus plus plus,” he quipped. That’s 14 pluses, to be clear. Asked to elaborate, Stewart offered three letters: MVP.
The running back was tired of talking, and who can blame him? The party beckoned, and then the Super Bowl, and he’s been singing Newton’s praises for months. What more is there to add? Even talking about the best must sometimes get old. Newton’s stat line Sunday—19 of 28 for 335 yards, two touchdown passes and two rushing touchdowns—has become par for the course here, par for a season that was one score short of perfection. Even blowing out one of the NFL’s best teams in the conference championship game seemed, if not expected, then at least understandable. He’s just that good. They’re just this good.
Sunday’s NFC Championship was Carolina personified. It was loud and a little messy, big and bright—exactly what the Panthers, behind their quarterback, have become this season. Love them or hate them, and few fall in between those extremes, Newton and company set the NFL standard, going 15–1 with an average margin of victory of 12 points. When they roll into Santa Clara in two weeks to face the Broncos in Super Bowl 50, they’ll be favored, likely heavily, and the game will mark a transition. Win, and the NFL belongs to Newton. Beat Peyton Manning, and the generation shifts for good, and damn if Newton doesn’t look the part of King of the World.
This is the new reality in Carolina: winning big, living big. “I don’t know if we ever expect [Newton’s big plays], but we’ve gotten pretty used to it,” tight end Greg Olsen said after the game. “This is what he’s been since he got here in 2011.” And on paper, at least, that’s true. Only two of Newton’s regular-season statistics in 2015 marked career bests: his 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In fact, as a rookie, he attempted more passes, completed more, had a greater completion percentage and threw for more yards than he did in this, year five—yet in 2011, Carolina went 6–10 and missed the playoffs.
Since then, the Panthers have reconstructed their roster around Newton, although hardly with big-name, big-money players. What’s cemented their success, veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery said, is a notion of family and team that comes from the top down, and as the team has matured around Newton, that identity has solidified. But if the Panthers are a family, they’re a fun one, with some crazy uncles and a cooler full of booze at Christmas. They’re a family that allows for celebration and personality, for dancing and hamming for the camera.
“I know the guy sitting next to me is playing for me,” Cotchery said. “He knows I’m playing for him. … You won’t hear us talking about one guy being bigger than the team.”
Except, of course, that one guy is bigger. The biggest, really. Newton plays the best, dances the wildest, cheers the loudest, smiles the widest when the spotlight falls on him. But, Cotchery says, there’s a difference between success and selfishness. “He knows it’s about the team,” receiver said of quarterback. “When you truly embody that family, team atmosphere, I want my guy to be celebrating. He wants me to be celebrating.”
“We truly believe in him here,” Cotchery added, “and when you have someone you truly believe in, you can go out and play. That’s why he was able to showcase his talents all year long.”
There’s no denying this is Newton's team. Tight end Ed Dickson is explicit about the matter. If there was any doubt, the five-year, $118 million contract the quarterback signed last summer quieted it, and Dickson says that commitment and its inherent security has helped to push Newton to the next level. But even before that, he made Carolina a destination. His presence was what attracted the tight end in free agency after the 2013 season, and there's not a free agent receiver in football who isn't looking at what Newton has done this year with so little and thinking, that's where I want to go.
Receiver Ted Ginn, who finished Sunday's game with two catches for 52 yards and a 22-yard rushing touchdown, points to Newton's maturity. These days, he's saying the right things when they need to be said, commanding the locker room. “He's [young], but he's the oldest in the room,” Ginn said.
And there he is, shaking hands in the locker room Sunday, meeting teammates' family members, making small talk about Blue Bell ice cream as he clasps his bracelets. There he stands, all 6’5” of him neatly tucked into a camel sportcoat, his postgame press conference less interview than Oscar speech. He thanks the overlooked players, his offensive line, backup receivers. His smile creeps toward his eyebrows. He’s a toothpaste ad. He’s a linebacker. He’s a power forward. He’s the future, and it’s going to be fun.