There is one name conspicuous in its absence: Cam Newton. The former NFL MVP was released nearly two and a half months ago and yet remains without a team. “I’m told from sources that his market has cooled considerably in the last month or so,” ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler said during a recent SportsCenter appearance. “It is believed that he spoke to the Patriots at some point early in free agency around March. Since then, nothing.”
As a collective, the NFL has seemingly given up on Newton, a player who entered the second half of the 2010s as a bona fide superstar – someone who was a unanimous top-five selection in any “which quarterback would you start a franchise with for the next decade” discussions.
Throughout his time in the league, Newton has embodied zeal and energy, a bundle of happiness and ego with an uncompromised passion for football. Now, at just 30, he is talked of in hush tones and whispers. He’s washed up. Doesn’t have it anymore. Too beat up. What a shame. With all that has gone on inside and outside of the football world, Cam Newton’s free agency is hardly at the forefront of anyone’s mind. But it remains objectively bonkers that a former MVP less than two-years removed from high-level play is unable to find a starting job.
A reminder: Newton turned 31 years on last month. The last time we saw him on a field fully healthy was during the first 11 weeks of the 2018 season. He was as sparkling and efficient as ever. Each of his key metrics, base and advanced, was at or above his career averages. As always, his accuracy waned (a non-stop frustration with Newton), but he more than made up for it with explosive, game-breaking plays. A shoulder injury tanked the second half of his 2018 season and was followed with a foot injury that robbed him of all but two games in the 2019 season. And like that, the Newton experience was over.
At the peak of his powers, Newton was a singular force: A blend of size, speed and arm strength the quarterback position has never seen. He helped take the Panthers to a Super Bowl in a funky offense that was built around his own quirks: his willingness to bang between the tackles and his penchant to mistime some of dropbacks. The team dumped a number of timing passing concepts and instead built an offensive identity around what Newton did best, handing him complete command of the offense.
It worked! For that year, Newton was as close to an unstoppable a force as anything we’ve seen this side of Patrick Mahomes. Cheat down to stop the run, and Newton would launch the ball behind the defense. Load up in the passing game, and the Panthers would turn the game into a series of 1v1 matchups, only their one, Newton, was bigger, fast and stronger than anything on your side of the field.
That we’re even reflecting on Newton’s past greatness is both fitting and odd. Right now should be the apex of his powers, the moment when his athletic skills and technical nous coalesce to make him a consistent top-five quarterback rather than the high-variance version he was in his early years. He should be the cornerstone of a perennial Super Bowl contender. Instead, he’s a street free agent being passed up for jobs by a fossilized Joe Flacco.
Whether or not Newton is still able to ratchet it up to his old level is hardly a debate – he almost certainly cannot. It’s not as though he’s sustained one serious injury or repeat injuries within the same area. He is now up to multiple injuries in multiple spots, the most recent of which impact his two key traits: his throwing shoulder (throwing power) and his feet (speed). But could he still be an effective starter who could do for a team what Ryan Tannehill did for the Titans last season? Controlling the flow of the game and then making big plays on third downs? Sure. Why not?
Almost every team in the league has now settled on its starting quarterback for the 2020 season. And those who may be lukewarm on their starter have made a strong dent in their cap sheet by trying to surround their quarterback with as much talent as possible. Trying to find a spot that has both a potential starting spot for Newton and the money he would command is difficult. The Patriots are about it.
Most likely: Newton will have to be happy signing a one-year, incentive-heavy “prove it” deal in which he will have to unseat an incumbent starter.
But maybe not. Maybe he thinks the punishment isn’t with it if he’s only walking into a backup gig. Newton has an earned ego, the best kind. He carried an Auburn team on his back to the national championship in college and came within a game of replicating the feat with the Panthers in the Super Bowl. To think he might come in and sit behind Matt Ryan or Ben Roethlisberger or Jared Goff feels fanciful, even if it would make all the sense in the world for the respective teams.
Newton was a paradigm shifter when he entered the league, the kind of new-age, spread-option quarterback who helped revolutionize a conservative league. Will he be a paradigm shifter on the way out? Is this the new life cycle of professional quarterbacks?
We have become accustomed to dropback, rhythm passers playing to their 40s. That the Packers would plan for a future beyond their 38-year-old quarterback came as a shock. But as the era of Manning, Brady, Brees, Rodgers and Roethlisberger ages out of the league, mobile quarterbacks will have a monopoly on the landscape.
While Newton represents one of the high points of that style, it is a skill set that is more available than ever before. If college and high school teams are not putting their best athlete at quarterback at this point, they’re getting left behind.
As the league shifts wholesale to an embrace of spread-option, pace-and-space concepts, perhaps the career arc of quarterbacks will change with it: get in, wow, get hurt, get out – kind of like running backs or wide receivers. This is my number and I’m not playing unless you reach it and I’m good with that.
In Newton’s case, that would be a shame. The Panthers failed to supply him with a team that was consistently equipped to compete deep in the playoffs. In the season that the Panthers went to the Super Bowl – when Newton infamously failed to dive for a loose ball – that image of Newton failing to spring to the ground for it has lived on in the consciousness. It has been through the meme cycle and is now a fully baked-in part of his legacy. So has his post-game performance, with opinions ranging from sore-loser-whiner to great-competitor-who-hates-to-lose depending on the opinion-givers innate bias.
For that to be the lasting image of Newton’s career, a potential championship right-there-but-lost, would be a shame. Too often he was forced to drag a moribund bunch to the playoffs (with a strong assist from a consistently brilliant defenses). As the team gathered towards competency again, his body gave out.
Here’s hoping he can rebound, that this isn’t the end of Newton as a starter but a speed bump on the way to a fascinating second act.