CHARLOTTE --All those questions about whether Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton can lead seem silly now.
With a trip to Super Bowl 50 on the line, Newton stood in front of his teammates at halftime of Sunday night's NFC Championship Game and gave the inspirational speech of his life.
He then provided an inspirational second-half performance that catapulted the Panthers to a 49-15 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
But it was Newton's speech that stood out more, because it was only the second time in his career he'd done that and the first time since his rookie season in 2011.
"That really impacted our group," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Monday. "Our guys heeded his message. It's not as if I asked him to do it. He wanted to do it. He came to me and said, 'I've got this covered.'"
Newton's message wasn't that much different than the one he delivered in 2011, when the Panthers were up 21-0 at Houston. He talked about the importance of finishing games during a season in which the Panthers struggled to finish them.
The Panthers won that day, 28-13.
The Panthers were up 24-7 at halftime Sunday. They were a week removed from letting a 31-0 halftime lead against the Seahawks dwindle to seven points.
Newton wanted to make sure that didn't happen again.
"It was about playing to our abilities," Rivera said. "It was about playing the way we know we can. It was good. It was a very heartfelt message. Shoot, I got excited about it."
Newton hasn't always gotten credit for his leadership. He wasn't voted a team captain until his third season. There was a stigma that he lacked the respect of his teammates.
Former teammate Steve Smith called him out as a rookie when Newton was known to sit alone on the bench with a towel over his head.
"I told [him], 'You can get some mental reps or you can sit on that bench and sulk,'" Smith said at the time.
Few if any question Newton's leadership qualities now. The only question is whether he'll win the NFL's MVP award the night before the Super Bowl.
And that's only a question because it hasn't been made official.
"I don't know what all the debate was about," Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said as confetti fell on him Sunday night. "He's the MVP. He's shown it all year long. What are we waiting on? We could have done the MVP ceremony right here.
"He's been wonderful all year long. Now people are just starting to appreciate that."
Carolina players definitely appreciate Newton's ,willingness to throw his 6-foot-5, 260-pound body in harm's way as he did at the end of a 12-yard third-quarter third-down run Sunday.
Newton literally went airborne for the final three yards, landing on his head and shoulders. It was part of an effort that made him the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to pass for more than 300 yards (335) and rush for multiple touchdowns (2).
"It's cool to see him get the ball and not be denied," Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "That's why we love Cam -- because every week, regardless of the situation, he's going to go out there and give it his all.
"And that's what he did [against Arizona]. That third-down run was big-time. Cam just wanted it. And when you want it as much as him it's hard to turn him away."
Newton makes the spectacular seem ordinary, to the point that his teammates are used to it.
"I don't know if you ever expect it, but we have gotten pretty used to it," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "This is what he has been since he got here in 2011."
The one thing you haven't heard much about is Newton's ability to lead with his words, as he did at halftime Sunday.
Now that's off the checklist.
"I was real pleased with it," Rivera said. "I really was. Watching the guys take ownership and challenging one another and him stepping up and saying what he had to say, that really impacted our group.
"Our guys heeded his message."
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