Cam Newton’s team dumped him. No one else jumped in to take him. Welcome to football purgatory.
Prove yourself seemed to be the message. Prove you can play the way we once thought you could. Prove that you can operate in a way that doesn’t screw up the entire program.
This was January 2009, not now. Newton was a 19-year-old near nobody, not a 30-year-old former NFL MVP.
The details are all different. The questions are familiar. The emotions probably as well.
Back then, the five-star recruit had been booted from the University of Florida after being arrested for possession of a stolen laptop. He was off to a junior college in Texas with everything to lose and even more to prove.
Now, he’s just an unemployed veteran QB, released by the Carolina Panthers after they couldn’t find anyone willing to trade for him. No one has rushed to sign him. He may be considered a backup at this point. Teams appear uncertain he would fit in such a role.
“People love a good underdog story,” Newton posted on Instagram this past week, with videos of him in a practice throwing session. “This ain’t that.”
No, it’s not. And maybe that sentiment is the best sign that Newton is approaching his new transition the way he once approached his old one. He sounds determined. He looks focused.
How he reacts to all of this — fired, ignored, doubted, all with seemingly years still to play — will help define his career.
It’s hard to recall that Newton’s career nearly ended before it seemingly began. Yet after being a coveted recruit, he spent two seasons at Florida as a backup to Tim Tebow. Then he got kicked off the team.
Suddenly everything was a question.
Tebow was an incredible college quarterback, but how could someone with Newton’s 6-foot-5 frame and otherworldly skills get on the field for just 12 mop-up duty passes? Was he not that good?
And why the string of trouble at Florida? Suspicion of academic fraud. The laptop. Who knows what else, people wondered. Urban Meyer coached Florida, and he was hardly known for a willingness to discard talent. Was this kid just trouble?
As Newton rode shotgun in his dad Cecil’s truck, the two talked. Blinn College was far from the SEC, with spartan dorms, rural views and a workout facility that felt like part “American Ninja Warrior,” part “Hunger Games” (lots of tire pulls in 100 degree heat). Reality set in.
“My dad said, ‘Cam, you can make this situation a dream or you can make this situation a nightmare,’” Newton told Yahoo Sports in 2011. “That struck a fire under me. That was my drive.”
It wasn’t just his game that improved, it was his leadership, his maturity, his everything. The fire spread into all facets of his life.
His one year at Blinn, he led it to the NJCAA national title. He moved onto Auburn and in his one year there, he led the Tigers to the SEC title and BCS national championship. After going No. 1 overall to the Panthers in the 2011 NFL draft, he would lead them to Super Bowl 50 in the 2015-16 season as a 17-1 team, earning the league MVP along the way.
Sixty times, playoffs included, Newton carried a football into the end zone for the Panthers.
On nearly every occasion, he celebrated by pretending to rip his shirt open, a reference to Superman.
This was the ultimate symbol. Newton: Faster than a speeding bullet. Newton: More powerful than a locomotive. Newton: Often the biggest, even more often the best, player on the field. Newton: More than willing to let you know about it.
It was bold. It was in your face. It was completely deserved.
Don’t like it. Go ahead and stop it.
No one could. And he knew it.
Newton is no longer Superman. At least not in the NFL’s eyes. Carolina would rather have Teddy Bridgewater. Chicago chose Nick Foles to push Mitchell Trubisky. New England appears content with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.
Is Newton still good? Can Superman take a supporting role and wait his turn?
Past is present. Can the present be like the past?
“I’m free and hungry,” Newton wrote in one IG post.
“All I know is … work. Hard work,” he wrote in another.
Is this his new Blinn? It probably needs to be. Perception can be reality and the current perception of Cam Newton isn’t as someone who can lead a team to success.
There is only one way for Newton to change that. Prove it’s wrong. Prove it by fitting in wherever he winds up. Prove it by returning to the form that made him, for a stretch, the most dangerous player in the game.
Maybe 2015 never happens again — 35 touchdowns through the air, 10 more on the ground.
Yet it’s hard to imagine there isn’t more game in Newton. Another run for Superman in his latest, last chance.
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