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Cam Newton workout: hype or helpful?

SAN DIEGO- Five days after the invitation-only, media-only, private-but-well-publicized Cam Newton workout at Cathedral Catholic High, the buzz has faded but his public perception, perhaps, has changed.

And isn’t the perception all that matters? Isn’t that what sells tickets, jerseys and Cam Newton plush toys? Isn’t that what gets him on late-night talk show loveseats and prompts Under Armour to sign Newton to what’s reportedly the richest deal for an incoming NFL rookie? Isn’t that what will make everyone, not just the America’s media, football fans, Pop Warner tykes and NFL scouts and power brokers, like Cam Newton enough to watch Cam Newton?

Click on the photo for a slide show of Newton’s “media only” workout in San Diego.

“Perception is going to drive Cam Newton a little bit, and the more he can get the media to perceive him as a big-time NFL pro prospect, the better chances he has of going in the first round,” said the enamored – or en-Camored – Trent Dilfer, the ESPN and former NFL quarterback who reported live Thursday from “one of the most phenomenal personal workouts I’ve even seen.”

Maybe we used to think that Newton, the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback who led Auburn to an undefeated 2010 season and a BCS national championship, was merely a supremely gifted, big, strong and fast freelancing athlete who flourished in the Tigers’ spread offense. Or, perhaps we figured he will be the next Michael Vick, Vince Young – or, yikes, JaMarcus Russell.

But after this past Thursday’s expertly orchestrated exhibition, which would rival the acrobatic productions of Cirque du Soleil, Newton boldly put the klieg lights on his quickly developing abilities to operate within the structure of an NFL offense. He offered proof, albeit not in front of the well-trained eyes of NFL scouts but in front of the Play-Doh impressionable, image-shaping media, that he has the throwing mechanics, compact stroke, nimble footwork, passing velocity and accuracy, mental capacity and work ethic to become an NFL quarterback.

(Click on the photo for a massive slide show of Cam Newton’s workout.)

“I’m making that leap right now to being a Super Bowl champion,” said Newton, who threw for 30 touchdowns, rushed for 20 and caught one in 2010. “That’s what I’m going in Day One reaching for. I’m shooting for greatness.”

Maybe we used to dislike or to a lesser degree dismiss the polarizing Newton as another slick, superbly talented, NCAA-rules-skirting athlete. Or, perhaps we characterized him as the Reggie Bush who gets away and gets to keep his Heisman because he claims – and the NCAA believed – he didn’t know that his father, Cecil Newton, was allegedly brokering a pay-for-play deal that would have sent Cam to Mississippi State instead of Auburn.

But the doubts about his character seemed forgettable around the forcefield-like pull of infectious charm, champion’s Colgate-white smile, spot-on impression of Shaquille O’Neal in Icy Hot ads and playful invite for everyone to come to a surfing party as the Encinitas beach house where he’s staying. His affable personality was just as much on display as his athletic ability at this made-for-media workout that was originally conceived and organized by his father.

Thursday’s event wasn’t so much the raw glimpse daily workout regimen as it was a perfectly scripted 40-minute infomercial. It was less a media opportunity for “Cam Newton: Behind the Magic” expose journalism and more of the opportunity for “Cam(paign) Newton” to use the media, most prominently ESPN and the NFL Network as well as the Associated Press and an assortment of Southern California outlets who were had to feel grateful and privileged to get one of the 30 or so hot-pink wristbands required for entry.

Much like Newton himself, Thursday’s event was certainly special, if not controversial. Few quarterbacks, particularly those with Newton’s high first-round projections, are willing to exhibit their passing skills and debut their NFL-ready look for the public until the spring. Only three of the 11 signal-callers selected in the first round since 2005 have been confident enough to throw at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Newton said that his star-studded “Team Newton” has not yet decided whether he will throw at the Combine, which will be held Feb. 23 to March 1 in Indianapolis. Knowing that Newton might not showcase his passing abilities until the cherry blossoms bloom gave Thursday’s exhibition the big-event electricity and cache of sneak-peak of a summer blockbuster.

Once inside the two security checkpoints and the chain-link fence, Newton stood at the center of Cathedral Catholic’s perfectly manicured Manchester Stadium, all 6 feet, 6 inches and 250 pounds of sunshine-glistening, Michelangelo-commission-worthy muscle and bone.

By no accident, of course, Newton was cloaked in a Nike Football gray hoodie and shod in orange and white Under Armour cleats. (He had been in negotiations with both companies for lucrative signature-shoe and apparel deals before Under Armour, which also outfitted Auburn, reportedly landed him for undisclosed millions on Monday.)

For the past three weeks, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., on this high school field for physical drills and in a UC San Diego classroom for playbook study and Wonderlic practice tests, renowned San Diego-based quarterback builder George Whitfield Jr. has coordinated efforts to polish Newton into the perfect NFL quarterback prospect for the April 28 draft.

“I’m just trying to be another cow in the farm and make him (Whitfield) try to transform me into a thoroughbred,” said Newton, mixing metaphors at the end of this dog-and-pony show.

Also in the mix are Brett Favre-famed agent Bus Cook, IMG marketing agent Carlos Fleming and Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who serves as a mentor. Former San Diego State track coach Rahn Sheffield, who has already quickened Newton’s 30-meter dash time by three tenths of a second to 3.7, supervises running and agility drills while personal trainer Doug Hicks oversees strength and conditioning. A stable of former pro and college receivers are on hand for workouts and joined the commercial shoot as supporting actors.

Whitfield directed the action. After stretching, Newton showed off his foot speed and agility in the Combine-style ladder drills and then began throwing. All the drills highlighted Newton’s abilities to work under center rather than out of shotgun as he often did at Auburn.

He sank down for the snaps. He reacted to light “defensive” pressure that consisted of white-shirted, black-shorted high schoolers who jogged within five feet of Newton’s aura. Under fake siege, he showed mobility in the pocket. He dropped back in perfectly choreographed motions of three, five and seven steps, and after a brief correction from Moon, properly transferred his weight to put even more explosion behind his spirals.

“The technique and fundamentals are still becoming second nature to him,” said Moon, who projects Newton as a top-five selection in NFL draft on April 28. “This kid is just going to continue to rise through the draft process as they realize how his game translates to the next level.”

Against an intermittent wind, Newton feathered short passes and rifled mid- and long-range bullets, impressively striking nearly all of his targets in stride – there were about five drops out of 35 attempts – on five varying routes. No special effects.

Cam Newton looked so perfect that it was easy to forget that these passes were really sales pitches and this workout was really just another commercial selling an image to buy.

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