The Curious Case of Cam Newton

There has been a lot of talk recently about the remaining unsigned free agents in the NFL. This time of year tends to see the market dry up as teams get ready for the draft and teams that inevitably miss their targets will begin to comb through the remains to find the missing piece to complete their rosters.

The name that is equal parts surprising and unforeseen is Cam Newton.  For those who have forgotten.  Cam Newton was playing at an MVP caliber before a strained knee ended his season prematurely in 2018.  Since that time we have not season a healthy Cam Newton.  We saw him return to play two games in the 2019 season.  It was clear to anyone who was watching, Cam Newton was not healthy.

Now in an offseason that has marked change in Carolina has fired head coach Ron Rivera, seen the retirement of linebacking sensation Luke Kuechly and the signing of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Panthers have released Cam Newton.  While this generally would make big news in the NFL, the now-former franchise quarterback remains unsigned.  Most NFL fans with an ounce of nuance would understand that this is largely due to the Covid19 pandemic and the inability for teams to examine players with a history of medical issues.

Cam Newton’s career has been notable for a couple of reasons.  The first think we think about of course is the injury history that we just reviewed.  Tied into that of course is the style of play which is equal parts impressive and destructive.  In his early tenure in the NFL Cam Newton played the game like Miley Cyrus’ “Wreckingball”.  Running over linebackers and diving for pylons quickly became the norm.  Of course, the playing style and the injuries are indefinitely tied together.

So, to recap, we have a team in a period of flux, a worldwide pandemic with limited access to team facilities and an aging quarterback with injury history.  Yet, while the situation seems to be fairly straightforward, media drive narratives have muddied the waters.  In the past few weeks with no sports being played, pundits have all weighed in on #1’s future.

The first criticism I’ve heard is that Cam Newton isn’t a winner.  This is largely based on the idea that because the Panthers lost to the Broncos.  The Broncos at that time had a legendarily great defense that season and carried the decaying corpse of Peyton Manning to his second and final super bowl.  In that game, there was a moment that left many observers with the poor optic that showed Cam Newton refusing to dive on a loose ball he likely wouldn’t have recovered.  While he was criticized for that moment, many realized that had he dove into the pile and gotten injured it would likely have ended the Panthers Super Bowl bid on the spot. 

However, I remember Cam Newton leading Auburn to a National Championship in college.  Sure, there is a difference between the college and the pros.  However, many examples of guys who have the intangible quality of being a winner in college.  Usually those given the “winningness gene” are guys who won games despite not having the physical tools to truly be successful in the NFL.  The best of such examples is Tim Tebow.  Tebow has carried this perception of being a winner based on what he did in college.  This perception has stayed with him even as he is now in the Mets organization, if there was ever a franchise in professional sports that should shake off a winning reputation it would be the New York Mets. Yet Tebow remains a winner but Newton does not keep that reputation. 

Another criticism is that Cam Newton is immature.  This is largely due to the fact that Newton is known for his cryptic tweets and now, for forcing his way out of Carolina.  In my estimation, this is the most overblown narrative.  Lebron James has been known to put out cryptic tweets about his situation and his teams and teammates and, for the most part, James hasn’t received the same criticisms that we’ve seen in the case of Cam Newton.  We’ve also seen the situation with Tom Brady in this same offseason who used his leverage to leave New England.  His social media and the interviews he’s done have made it clear that Brady wanted to make it clear that he felt he was unwanted in New England.  Moreover, Seth Wickersham reported that Tom Brady had Jimmy Garoppolo traded away when he feared he was going to be replaced.  However, Cam Newton has the cross to bear despite being a typical athlete in the modern age.

There is also the condemnation of Cam Newton being selfish and self-serving.  These types of criticisms tend to come from people of the same demographic.  Most of the people who take issue with Cam Newton for this reason tend to be white, older, over weight and likely were never as good at anything in their lives as Cam has been in the NFL.  This criticism is always a veiled version of “shut-up and do your job”.  For example, there are those who dislike the way that cam Newton dresses and uses this expression of individuality as a sign that he is not a team player.  This, of course, is nonsense.  Teammates have often said that Cam Newton is a great leader and teammate.  In our lives, we wouldn’t want those to judge the performance in our jobs based on how we dress yet, people feel free to act in kind.  Additionally, these criticisms are made of a guy who constantly gives touchdown balls to children in the stands and who has donated millions of dollars to the youth and their education in Carolina.

Donkey Kong Suh

What we have here is a situation where there is a uniquely talented player.  At the start of last season, it would not have been debated that Cam Newton is a starting caliber quarterback.  His injuries seem to have shifted perception but, there is no doubt that he can still play.  He may need to change his playing style in the latter chapter of his career but we have seen aging players recreate themselves on almost a yearly basis.  One would imagine that these head coaches who are praised on a continual basis had the vision and willingness to work with a special talent.  Only time will tell if these heralded “geniuses” can be adaptable and work around talent or if they continue to play it safe and wish only to work with perceived blue-chip stock.

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