Story highlights

The Carolina Panthers are one of the cockiest teams in the NFL

Players and fans have complained about Cam Newton's dabbin' during games

What often gets overlooked is the off-the-field charity work done by the players

CNN  — 

“Cam Newton is a butt-face. That is all.”

Um, what?

This was on my Facebook news feed recently, and it got me wondering: Why is there so much hate for the Carolina Panthers quarterback and the rest of the team?

Yes, Peyton Manning is the sentimental favorite in Super Bowl 50, which is February 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The Denver Broncos quarterback potentially could be playing the final game of his career. He even alluded to it after beating the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. NFL Films picked up the audio of Manning telling Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, “This might be my last rodeo.” I’m guessing the majority of fans want to see the Broncos win and have Manning ride off into the sunset, just like John Elway did. It’s a great story, and I get that.

Carolina is playing the role of Super Bowl 50 villain. The Panthers are brash. They’re cocky. They’re borderline arrogant, taking team photos after wins – and sometimes even before their wins. In Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, the Panthers – who were en route to blowing out the Arizona Cardinals 49-15, were posing for photographs before and after the game was over.

Their fans love it. Outsiders hate it.

But these feelings against the Panthers didn’t just start this week. This has been festering all season. When the Panthers were undefeated for most of the regular season (they’re currently 17-1), it wasn’t about if they would lose, it was when. The more they won, the more infuriated the haters got.

We’ve seen this before

After securing the top seed in the NFC for the first time in franchise history, the Panthers still had doubters. Many – me included – thought they would lose to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. The Seahawks, by the way, previously had the reputation of being the NFL’s cockiest team. Guess what? The Panthers dominated the first half and held on to win 31-24.

After the game, video showed Newton – who rightfully was celebrating the win – chucking a Seahawks “12th Man” flag that was thrown in his direction. That prompted a Seahawks fan to post a letter on Facebook, calling out “Mr. Classless Cam Newton.”

Oh please. It was fun. He was smiling. He was in the moment. He just won, after all. Do we really need a deep dive on this?

Newton also has been the subject of criticism for his touchdown celebrations this season. Sometimes he somersaults into the end zone, like he did against the Cardinals on Sunday. And he likes to dance. A lot. Newton is the one who has made the “dab” dance in the end zone popular this season.

And some take offense to dancing, apparently. After a Newton score in a 27-10 win at the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, Titans players took offense to his choreography. Newton, while backing away from the confrontation, just kept dancing.

“If you don’t like me to do it, don’t let me in,” Newton said after the game.

But there was more fallout. A Tennessee mom who was at the game with her daughter sent a letter to the Charlotte Observer that she wrote to Newton.

“Because of where we sat, we had a close-up view of your conduct in the fourth quarter,” the letter said. “The chest puffs. The pelvic thrusts. The arrogant struts and the ‘in your face’ taunting of both the Titans’ players and fans. We saw it all.”

The woman later wrote: “Unfortunately, what you modeled for them today was egotism, arrogance and poor sportsmanship.”

In response, Newton was quoted later, saying, “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. Everyone is. You can’t fault her for that. If she feels offended, I apologize to her, but at the end of the day, I am who I am. It is what it is.”

Then the mom told the Observer she appreciated Newton’s “comments and his respect for my thoughts, and I was impressed with the sensitivity and graciousness with which he spoke.”

You do realize that Newton isn’t the only dabbin’ professional athlete, right? Other NFL players have done it. LeBron James has done it. Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney has done it. Where’s the outrage when those guys did it?

Someone else who doesn’t have a problem with it: Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

“You get to the end zone in an NFL game, you deserve the right to celebrate,” Sherman said January 14, a few days before losing to Carolina in the divisional round. “You’ve worked hard. You’re a professional athlete. If you don’t get a chance to celebrate in the pros, when do you get a chance to celebrate? When do you get to show what you can do, to enjoy yourself?

“I mean, this is a game. Some people who have never played it, who have never expressed passion, sit behind desks all day and do that. Maybe you celebrate sometimes when you do something great, and nobody judges you, because nobody is watching. As you’re watching him, enjoy it. He is enjoying it. He can enjoy his craft. If he wants to celebrate, that’s fine.”

In a new Beats by Dre ad, Newton calls out the critics:

“Just when I think I can’t go anymore, I think about those who doubted me, and I do one more rep. I do one more pull-up. And if giving a kid a football just for a smile, or dancing after a touchdown hurts other people’s feelings, then guess what? Too bad they don’t make Band-Aids for feelings.”

Newton was asked Wednesday why he thinks he’s become more of a lightning rod than other athletes. Newton didn’t mince words.

“I’m an African-American quarterback. That may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” Newton said.

Yes, Newton is different. He gets it. There’s no one else like him in the NFL with his type of talent.

“People should be scared of a quarterback with his skill set more so than anything else,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday. “That’s who he is. He’s a tremendously gifted athlete, a terrific quarterback, a smart football player. I mean the list goes on and on. That’s what they should be concerned about more so than anything else. … I don’t think he wants to be known as an African-American quarterback. I think he wants to be known as a quarterback, and a great one at that.”

What about the nice stuff?

Even when the Panthers do something nice – like giving footballs to young fans after scoring a touchdown – they get scrutiny.

Good grief. Let’s just leave that one there.

What doesn’t get as much attention is the Panthers’ work off the field.

Newton’s charity work is off the charts. The Cam Newton Foundation helps children with socioeconomic, educational, physical and emotional needs. On Thanksgiving, Newton fed more than 900 children. At Christmas, “Santa Cam” and teammates Derek Anderson and Joe Webb delivered gifts to different areas of Charlotte.

Newton also visited the families of the victims of the Charleston shooting at Emanuel AME Church last year. One of those family members was Chris Singleton, whose mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was killed in the shooting. Newton invited Singleton and his family to the Panthers’ final regular-season game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who has a son who was born with a severe congenital heart defect, also has his own foundation. One of the causes is The Heartest Yard, which is a family service program that provides families that have babies affected with congenital heart disease access to in-home private nurse care and physical therapy.

Ron Rivera: ‘Don’t change’

So are the Carolina Panthers going to adjust their ways? Rivera hopes that answer is no.

Rivera, who was a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl-winning team, is no stranger to celebrations (remember the “Super Bowl Shuffle”?). Rivera said the day after winning the NFC Championship that he plans to share that previous experience with his players.

So as for dabbin’, dancing and other celebrations? Rivera’s fine with it. In fact, he doesn’t want them to change a thing.

“Do what you’ve done,” Rivera said January 25. “Don’t change. Some of my experiences in coaching, you get to certain situations like the playoffs. Sometimes you get a little bit of, I don’t want to say panic, but a little bit of self doubt. You say, ‘Did I do enough? Do I need to do more? Should I change this?’

“I told our coordinators this morning, we’re going to do what we do. We’re going to stick to what got us to where we are today. We’ll emphasize that with the players and making sure we keep our personality.”

Guess the haters will just have to deal with it.