Opinion: Even in spoiled return, Cam Newton sparks hope for Carolina Panthers

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Cam Newton crossed the goal line to cap a 24-yard touchdown run, turned and sprinted back to midfield, slammed the football on the Carolina Panthers logo and did his signature Superman flex before letting out a cry that unleashed 20 months’ worth of emotions.

The pain and frustration stemming from a new Carolina regime’s decision to release the quarterback in 2020 after his nine seasons as the face of the franchise. The uncertainty he endured as a free agent these last three months after New England sent him packing. The jubilation sparked by a desperate Panthers call 10 days earlier to bring him back, setting him up to make his first start of his return on Sunday after spot duty in a win last week.

On the home sideline stood Matt Rhule – the coach who had just taken over when Carolina cut Newton in March of 2020 and now needed him to save the Panthers’ season. On the visitors sideline stood Ron Rivera – the coach who drafted Newton first overall in 2011, guided him to an MVP campaign and Super Bowl appearance and was fired by Carolina three months before Newton’s release. Rivera also opted against bringing the quarterback with him to Washington last season and again this year, and now sought to ruin Newton’s storybook moment.

The football gods sure have a flair for the dramatic.

Ultimately, Rivera did ruin Newton and his former team’s day. Taylor Heinicke – Newton’s former backup and the quarterback Rivera did bring with him to Washington – directed two fourth-quarter scoring drives, and Rivera’s defense sacked Newton on fourth-and-3 with 1:11 left to kill a comeback bid and seal a 27-21 victory.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after scoring during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Football Team Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after scoring during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Football Team Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C.

Newton provided the much-needed energy to a team and fan base that endured losses in five of their six games preceding last week's win at Arizona. He again provided signature heroics while passing for two touchdowns and rushing for another, but his Panthers fell to 5-6.

Newton blamed himself for his team’s shortcomings. He pointed to a fourth-down throw to Christian McCaffrey that got stopped short of a first-down with three minutes left, and a hesitation that led to the final sack as two of the instances where he could have done better. He also lamented a 2-for-9 showing on third downs as points that could have changed the outcome of the game.

But Newton did and has indeed given his team hope. Teammates say he has infused the franchise with a new energy. On Sunday, Panthers players described the stadium atmosphere as electric. The fans buzzed with excitement from the time Newton was introduced pre-game Sunday and after each positive play he delivered.

“I thought Cam was excellent,” Rhule said in a news conference before expressing confidence that the quarterback and the team can ascend as they fight for a playoff spot in the final six weeks of the season.

Newton and the Panthers’ full-circle tale serves as an indicator that do-overs are indeed possible in the NFL as long as there’s a willingness to learn and adapt.

The argument could be made that Carolina should have never parted with Newton last year as the franchise hit the reset button following David Tepper’s purchase and Rhule’s hire.

But uncertainty hung over Newton and a surgically repaired throwing shoulder, and after failing to orchestrate a trade, the Panthers cut him to save $19 million against the salary cap.

Rhule thought he had an upgrade in free agent Teddy Bridgewater, whom the Panthers signed to a three-year, $63 million contract. But the journeyman’s inconsistencies led to his departure via trade after just one season. And Bridgewater’s replacement, Sam Darnold, has struggled after a promising start and is now sidelined with a shoulder injury.

That’s what prompted Rhule to reach out to Newton and ask him to come back, which took no small degree of humility on the part of the coach, as well Newton, who could have harbored ill feelings toward the franchise but instead chose to focus on the future.

He and Rhule had the same goals – to win – and that was good enough.

“Were there disconnects? It’s irrelevant,” Newton said just more than a week ago after re-signing with Carolina. “To hell with feelings. It would be the biggest right to wrongs to win football games.”

Newton was willing to fill whatever role the Panthers offered him and last week shared snaps with P.J. Walker (and produced a rushing touchdown and passing touchdown) in the blowout win over Arizona.

But Rhule this week turned the wheel over to Newton entirely and named him his starter even though the quarterback’s grasp of the offense remained incomplete. Newton still knew enough, and his experience would help him compensate and would serve the team well, Rhule believed, as would his leadership ability.

He was right. No, Newton didn’t turn in a perfect performance. But neither did the rest of the Panthers. The quarterback’s abilities and energy, however, affirmed his coaches’ and teammates’ beliefs.

Newton had to fight emotions on Sunday.

“Felt like my chest was about to explode a couple of times,” he said.

That’s because not only did Sunday represent his return to Bank of America Stadium, but also because Nov. 21 is the anniversary of the day in 2008 that he was arrested at the University of Florida and charged with felony counts of burglary, larceny and obstructing justice after he allegedly stole a laptop and threw it out a window.

“Today was my resurrection today,” Newton said. “November 21 is a very special day for me. I was incarcerated today when I was at the University of Florida, and this day was a big significance of where I came from.

“I was just going to enjoy the moment,” he continued. “My life could be who knows where. … God has favor over my life and that's the big picture. ... I'm still going to enjoy the moment, but I have to be better.”

After a year-long stint in New England and three-month period devoted to reflection and self-improvement, Newton believes his journey has guided him to a place of growth and that he is thoroughly equipped to give this Carolina team exactly what they need.

The Panthers would agree.

“I’ve never doubted him,” said McCaffrey, who had 59 rushing yards and 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. “I've always felt like any time he's on the field, he's ready to go and he is.”

Newton didn’t get his storybook moment on Sunday, and the loss caused the Panthers to slip out of the top seven spots in the NFC. But the quarterback gives his teammates reason to believe their goals remain possible, and the Panthers have given the one-time castoff a chance to pen his own ending.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cam Newton sparks hope for Panthers, even in spoiled return