As Cam Newton prepares for his 11th season, now or never has arrived for the Patriots quarterback

Even in the various iterations of Superman canon, there is an endpoint.

Superman either gives his powers away or he loses them. He either dies in battle or abandons Earth altogether. One way or another, the various strands of the mythology find a way to intersect, reaching an inevitably human decline that we can all understand: There is a rise. And there is a fall.

And so it will go with Cam Newton, the self-ordained Superman of the NFL, who enters his 11th season still searching for one last exceptional glimmer of what used to be.

But a simple truth is tugging at Newton’s cape in 2021. It suggests he's on a journey back to the NFL’s mediocre middle — and maybe further along than anyone has wanted to admit. Such a fade isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It happens to virtually everyone in this league not named Tom Brady. The only way to avoid it is to recognize the peak and leave the game before the game leaves you. And that almost never happens.

Newton is already past that point, of course. If he can’t reverse the trend of his past few years, his career will eventually be remembered for scattered seasons of spectacular play sandwiched around injuries and one tantalizing exclamation mark in 2015, when he transformed into the MVP player we expected to be the norm.

We’re five years removed from his level of play that season and have heard a multitude of excuses for why it didn’t endure. None of those reasons matter anymore. Newton enters this season at 32 years old and still needing to prove that he’s healthy enough to go an entire season playing at a peak level. By all accounts, he’s going to get his shot again with the New England Patriots.

That’s what Bill Belichick is telegraphing.

Belichick running it back with Newton praise

“Cam’s way ahead of where he was last year at this time,” Belichick said Tuesday. “There’s no question about that. As you would expect, he has a good year of experience under his belt and he’s able to start the process at the beginning and not be in a catch-up mode like he was last year.

"He was really just starting at this point last season, but he’s well ahead of that just from the year of experience and from the succession of building blocks that he’s been able to stack up — like all the players have that have been here since the start of the [organized team activities] and the offseason program back in April — that they’ve been able to stack those days and those learning experiences together, ask questions on things that they need clarification on and build to the next level when they’re ready to put another brick on the pile. So that’s good for all of us. It’s good for Cam. It’s good for all of the players who can go through that process.”

Belichick has always been a master of talking a lot but saying little. The fact remains that he has always been locked into a very “Cam positive” mode.

Therer are viable reasons Cam Newton struggled for the Patriots in 2020. But now he's heading into a decisive season. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)
Therer are viable reasons Cam Newton struggled for the Patriots in 2020. But now he's heading into a decisive season. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

A year ago, the assumption was that Tom Brady’s departure had something to do with it. As time went on, it seemed more plausible that Belichick believed two things: Newton still had talent, and he was buying into the program the way Bill needed him to. The problem, of course, was that Newton’s play diminished over the course of the season. And rather than looking like a player who just needed to be healthy, Newton looked like a player who needed more of almost everything. From health to surrounding talent to classroom time and more.

In fairness, Belichick made a good point. There’s no denying that Newton started from behind in 2020, when the primary question out of the gate was whether he could be healthy and ready to go for training camp. The playbook, chemistry and coaching curve were all destined to be works in progress. And that was before Newton ran into a positive COVID-19 test, which seemed to disrupt almost every bit of his momentum after only three games.

Newton later admitted that his COVID pause was a bigger setback than he let on. He also admitted to overthinking in games later in the season, which is typical of a player still acclimating to his offense.

Those are legitimate points of analysis when you unravel why a quarterback's season goes wrong. They also reduce the visibility around questions that still haven’t been answered. Among them:

After all of his injuries, is Newton simply a different player than he was in 2015?

And if he’s a different player, is his success completely predicated on the strength of the talent around him?

Will Cam prolong his ending?

This is what 2021 is going to be about, one defining ride that will decide whether Newton is seen as a viable starting quarterback into his mid-30s, or relegated to a journeyman role that leaves him bouncing around the NFL as little more than a one-season bridge starter or high-level backup.

Make no mistake, the latter of those scenarios represents the endpoint of Superman. There’s little use for a mythology about someone who is holding down the fort while a younger, better player gets ready to step in for the next decade. That might be exactly what Newton is doing for New England, who presumably drafted quarterback Mac Jones in hopes that he would win the starting job this season and resolve the long-term quarterback question.

The investment in Jones and Newton’s 2020 struggles suggest it's going in that direction. But there have been high-level quarterbacks who pulled themselves out of injury-related spirals in their 30s. It can happen.

Just ask Carson Palmer, who was traded to the Arizona Cardinals at 34 years old for a couple of late-round scrap-heap draft picks. The same Palmer who managed to make a Pro Bowl two years after that trade and carve out an admirable ending to his career.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has once again been supportive of Cam Newton this offseason. (Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has once again been supportive of Cam Newton this offseason. (Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)

And if you’re really optimistic, there’s also Kurt Warner, an MVP and Super Bowl winner with the St. Louis Rams who lost his job to Marc Bulger and then was ultimately cut by the franchise. One year later, he lost his job to then-rookie Eli Manning with the New York Giants, leaving Warner to void his own deal and sign with the Cardinals at 34. Many expected Warner to be a clipboard jockey for first-round pick Matt Leinart. Warner ultimately changed those plans, putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame resume with a flourishing few seasons before retiring at 38.

Does anyone expect this to be how Newton finishes the last few chapters in his career? Probably not. If anything, he has more doubters now than at any point in his career. He also has a few things going for him that he didn’t last season.

First, there were no major surgeries this past offseason. Second, the Patriots drove piles of money into talent acquisition this offseason, retooling parts of the offensive line and adding multiple pass-catching options to a scheme that will lean into short-to-intermediate mismatches. And finally, as Belichick said, Newton has had an offseason to work on what went wrong in Year 1. That includes Newton revamping parts of his footwork and mechanics with quarterbacks coach George Whitfield the past several months.

Time will tell whether this all amounts to Newton regaining upper-echelon starter status. Or whether he can even avoid injuries for another season, a question already raised when he suffered what the Patriots described as a bone bruise in his throwing hand during workouts.

One way or another, the decisive season has arrived for Newton, where the reasons for failure are far outweighed by the necessity of results. The battle against mediocrity and mortality is here for Superman. And it’s going to speak volumes about how quickly this mythology ends after 2021.

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