In retrospect, the last potentially great moment of Cam Newton’s career came with 4:16 left in Super Bowl 50.
His Carolina Panthers were down six points to the Denver Broncos. And he had the ball on his own 24. But this was Cam Freakin’ Newton here, the guy who’d just led his team to a 15-1 record, the guy who’d seized the league by the throat, the guy who’d once led Auburn back from a 24-point deficit against hated Alabama.
At that moment, what would you have gambled that Superman was going to come through again? A hundred bucks? A thousand? Your mortgage?
You know what happened next. The ball was snapped, Newton was swarmed by Denver, Von Miller stripped the ball from his hands. Newton saw the ball on the ground … and flinched.
You can’t draw a direct line from that moment to now, when Newton is out of a job. Newton’s decision not to throw his body into the fray isn’t why he’s sitting at home now. But that moment knocked him off his pedestal, and he’s never recovered.
Now, he’s out of work, unable to talk to teams and undergo medical evaluation to determine the extent of injuries he has suffered since then. Team after team in need of a quarterback has looked to the draft, to trades, to below-market one-year deals, to free agency, to pretty much anywhere but Newton. He’s gone from MVP to the discount bin, and it’s been a swift fall.
Newton’s old target Greg Olsen has a good idea why.
“Getting released after the lockdown was put in place, I think really limited his chances of teams, A. seeing that he was healthy, and B. just having a conversation with your potential new quarterback,” said Olsen, now with Seattle. “I think that’s been a challenge for him. I just hope that as things continue opening up and life sort of starts resembling some normalcy again that he can start checking off some of those boxes because he’s too good of a player to not be on a team right now.”
The medical aspect of Newton’s involuntary sidelining makes sense, but it’s the “B” part of Olsen’s answer that’s the most interesting. Newton has his defenders, Olsen among them, but there are plenty of critics who see only the ostentatious postgame outfits, not the quarterback who’s wearing them. Newton also has a way of undercutting his own case, like when he insisted he wasn’t blaming his joblessness on the pandemic … and then kind of did exactly that.
“It’s so much possibility for me right now, but the fact that this corona situation has hit, I’m not a person to blame or do any of [those] things,” Newton told Chris Paul in an interview on Instagram Live. “But at the same time, I think I have been affected in a lot of ways, and it’s just [unfortunate].”
Winning covers up a whole lot of quirks, and Newton has a whole lot of quirks. If you’re one of those old-school Vince Lombardi no-I-in-team types, well, Cam Newton was genetically engineered to step on every last one of your nerves. His smug podium demeanor, his Clark Kent-to-Superman posing, his did-the-camera-catch-my-good-side move of delivering a touchdown ball to a tyke in the end zone … all of that need for attention was fine as long as the Panthers were winning.
Now, four years removed from that Super Bowl, it all rings hollow … and that’s too bad because at his best, Newton was one of the finest QBs in the game. The question now is, can he ever rise above the noise again?
Newton was what they’d call in the NBA “a unicorn,” faster than anyone bigger, bigger than anyone faster. He played quarterback the way fellow North Carolinian Dale Earnhardt used to drive cars, making holes where there weren’t any.
But man, did he take a pounding. Per Pro Football Reference, Newton owns four of the top seven all-time season marks for rushing carries by a quarterback, and six of his seven 14-game-or-more seasons rank in the top 21. (The seventh, 2016, ranks No. 38 … and that was when the Panthers were actively trying to protect Newton from getting hit so much.)
A player can’t carry the ball that many times without taking serious, sustained punishment. (Keep this in mind for 2028: Lamar Jackson currently owns the top two seasons for rushing carries by a quarterback.)
It’s that long history of collisions, combined with two straight seasons that ended early due to injury, that certainly has teams worried. Combine that with the travel and contact restrictions due to the pandemic which prevent teams from scoping out Newton on their own, and what you have is a guy who’s an unknown quantity, a blind date who’s going to cost millions of dollars if you decide to close the deal.
Newton, for his part, is remaining active on Instagram, posting a melange of motivational quotes, workout videos and declarations of defiance, all hashtagged with “#shinethrutheshade” (well, technically, #šhïñëTHRŪthëŠHÄDĒ, in Newton’s distinctive parlance.) He’s also waiting on a starting job, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, but that’s a stance that might change if he stays unsigned into July or August ... and he very well might.
Newton will be 31 when the season starts. That’s on the old side for quarterbacks, but not for quarterbacks who are past MVPs. Under normal wear-and-tear rates, Newton ought to have many more years of productive ball ahead, but as with so much else, there’s nothing “normal” about how Newton has worn and torn.
Nobody can question how much gas Newton has left in the tank. The concern is how many holes are in the tank itself.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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