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Opinion: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers can set things right in reunion after ill-fated split

·5 min read
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You hear it often as it involves Splitsville situations: The grass is not always greener on the other side.

As Cam Newton returns to the Carolina Panthers, a year-and-a-half after a messy divorce sent him wandering the NFL wilderness, this is such a stirring NFL reality show teaching moment.

But not just for Newton, 32, the former NFL MVP who for many years was the face of the franchise.

There’s a big lesson here, too, for Panthers coach Matt Rhule, who received an NFL carte blanche card as the up-and-coming former college coach and hasn’t exactly lit it up in the pros.

Rhule, 9-16 in the NFL, thought he could win with Teddy Bridgewater, who was guaranteed $33 million on a three-year, $63 million contract he signed with the Panthers on the day that the organization closed the door on its run with Newton. Bridgewater, though, had trouble pulling out wins in crunch time and was dumped after one year in Carolina … only to fare better this season with the rebuilding Denver Broncos.

Rhule, 1-5 since that 3-0 start this season, banked on Sam Darnold, whose fractured shoulder opened the door for the Panthers to bring back Newton on Thursday with a one-year deal. Yet even before the injury, Darnold had reverted to the quarterback the New York Jets were eager to part with, as he is tied for the NFL lead with 11 interceptions.

Rhule should have never cut the cord with Newton in the first place.

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Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) reacts at he is introduced before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018.
Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) reacts at he is introduced before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018.

Surely, there were layers of circumstance. Before Newton was released in March 2020, he was granted permission to seek a trade – which, he said in a public criticism of the organization, he never wanted. At least a couple of teams kicked around the idea of dealing for Newton, but for a guy rehabbing a foot injury – and at the start of the pandemic, when travel for face-to-face visits and medical check-ups were null and void – the timing was not optimal.

So, they let him go, weeks before he was healed, and it wasn’t until July 2020 when Newton struck a deal with Bill Belichick for what turned out to be a short-term stay in Foxborough.

It should have never come to that – especially after Rhule stood at the podium that February during his first trip to the NFL scouting combine as a head coach and declared that he “absolutely” wanted Newton to stay.

When he said it, Rhule knew that Newton was coming off the foot injury, the latest in a string of physical setbacks that dogged the rugged, flamboyant, multi-dimensional and, yes, determined quarterback during his final years in Carolina. Newton gave up so much of his body to the Panthers – sure, football’s a tough sport; players sign up for it and some get paid millions of dollars for it – only to become expendable when he wasn’t healthy.

Here’s what Rhule spewed at his first combine:

“I’ll just say that I really want him on the team and I really want him to be healthy. I know when Cam’s healthy, who he is and the type of player that he is…When Cam’s healthy, he’s one of the best of the best.”

Three weeks later, Rhule and the Panthers cut Newton.

Cold business, this NFL.

No, Rhule didn’t have any relationship collateral built up with Newton. But he didn’t have any NFL collateral, either. Sticking with Newton, at least until the quarterback was healthy and they could give it the “college try” together – even if it meant bringing in competition that was less expensive than Bridgewater was -- would have been fair enough.

Karma, though, has brought them back together.

Panthers fans should rejoice at this reunion, and not just because a passionate player who typically finished off his “Superman” touchdown celebrations by giving footballs to kids in the stands, is back in town. No, they should acknowledge that if any quarterback on the market (besides Colin Kaepernick) deserves the opportunity to re-boot his career in Carolina, it’s Newton.

Of course, Newton surely thought he wanted out, too, after nine years in Carolina. I’m guessing he had visions that he could have landed somewhere and made the Panthers eat crow, kind of like how Tom Brady has shown the NFL universe of what’s possible in a new environment.

It’s striking that Newton’s former coach in Carolina, Ron Rivera, passed on the quarterback who helped him win three straight NFC South titles and a couple of NFL Coach of the Year awards, while having a need in Washington. Maybe he was turned off by the “diva persona” that Newton tends to roll with. And what does it say about Belichick cutting Newton loose and turning over the Patriots offense to a (now-impressive) rookie, Mac Jones?

Perhaps Newton, whose refusal to get vaccinated might have contributed to Belichick’s decision to release him (though the Patriots coach shot down the notion), has had a reality check. He’s not the player that he used to be, but presumably healthy and vaccinated now, he’s probably still capable of winning again. He’s been around long enough, endured enough ups and downs, to learn from his experiences.

And what a situational place to prove it. Maybe the grass is greener in Carolina.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers can set things right with reunion