What comes to mind when you think of Cam Newton? The Superman pose? Handing footballs to kids in the stands behind end zones? Failing to dive on that crucial Super Bowl fumble? The curious, eye-melting font in his Instagram posts? Outfits that split the difference between the Met Gala and a Marvel movie?
All of those images, combined — none of which involve Newton’s actual football gifts — are what make Newton’s impending return to Carolina so compelling. Maybe he’ll lead Carolina back to the playoffs; maybe he’ll get just a couple more cheers from the teal-and-black faithful. Either way, he’ll almost surely close out a singular NFL career the right way, where it all began.
Newton’s actual football abilities now rank low on the list of his best attributes, which is too bad. At his best, Newton exemplified an apex NFL predator, bigger than anyone faster and faster than anyone bigger, so far ahead of everyone else on the field that he could give them time to catch up and then still beat them.
It’s fading further in the distance, but Newton’s 2015 season remains one of the more remarkable individual performances in recent NFL history. Newton won the MVP for leading Carolina to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl berth, throwing for 35 touchdowns and rushing for another 10. He’d come into the league as a promised next-generation dual-threat QB, and 2015 was the year he leveled up to his top form.
That Super Bowl loss dogged him, though, and so did injuries and whispers. He wouldn’t ever hit the highs of that season again, and after a pain-riddled 2019, where he played in only two games, Carolina cut ties with him.
Bill Belichick saw him as a useful bridge between the Tom Brady era and Whatever Comes Next, but Newton wasn’t meant to be a game manager. In August, just hours after Belichick declared that Newton was “moving in the right direction,” he decided to move Newton in the direction of the door.
Almost no NFL career ends on a player's own terms. Most players don't get the chance to go out like John Elway or Peyton Manning, dropping the mic after winning a Super Bowl. Even so, the way Newton bounced out of the game — a preseason cut — felt unseemly for a player who'd revolutionized the game the way he had.
Newton’s vaccination status likely played a part in Belichick's decision to cut him loose — he wasn’t vaccinated at the time, and as the Packers can now testify, an unvaccinated quarterback who either contracts or comes in close contact with COVID-19 is a week-long liability. That’s also surely why all early news reports have made prominent mention of his vaccinated status; if he’s jabbed, he can take snaps immediately, without a waiting period.
Even when Newton suits up in his old No. 1 jersey — it’s still available — there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to get this grounded ship back out into open water. He would join a team that ranks 27th in total offense at 318.7 yards a game, 26th in scoring at 19 points per game. The team has four wins, none of them truly notable — the best might be over New Orleans in Week 2 — and five losses, including two ugly blowouts at the hands of the Giants and Patriots. The question of how much of that is the fault of the quarterback and how much is the game plan and supporting personnel is yet to be answered.
If you’re looking for shreds of hope, though, they’re already there. The Carolina defense is stout, ranking second in the NFL in yards allowed at 293.1 yards per game — one of only two teams, along with Buffalo, to allow less than 300 yards per game.
More to the point, Carolina sits just a half-game out of the seventh playoff spot, behind the same 4-4 Atlanta Falcons that Carolina beat on Halloween. All is not lost, which is why Carolina is making the move now.
The back half of Carolina’s season breaks out like this: somewhat easy, then very hard. After Arizona this weekend, the Panthers draw a winning trifecta of Washington, Miami and Atlanta. The Panthers close the year with a brutal quartet — Buffalo, New Orleans and Tampa Bay twice. If Newton is going to get the Panthers headed in the right direction, he’ll need to get started well before then.
The odds are long against Newton taking the Panthers back to the promised land. His skills aren’t what they once were, and he doesn’t have the supporting cast he had in 2015. But he’ll get the chance to go out with one more round of cheers, and someone who reached the highs he once climbed deserves that kind of sendoff.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.