It is rare you can ever say this about Cam Newton, but you can say it Thursday night as he starts the season against the Denver Broncos: The Carolina Panthers quarterback has nowhere to go but up.
Newton’s Super Bowl performance in February vs. the Broncos was a jarring reminder that “Super Cam” is not truly superhuman. It included two mistakes that have shadowed the 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player for seven months — a fumble he decided not to jump on and a press conference he sulked his way through.
Thursday night is Newton’s chance to change the narrative once again, to give people a dazzling and symbolic new set of memories so the old ones can fade.
Newton had little help offensively in that game against Denver in February, but nevertheless it ranks as one of the worst of his career because of the moment’s significance. After leading the NFL in scoring in the regular season and averaging an astounding 40 points in their first two playoff games, the Panthers only scored 10 in the biggest game of all.
Now, in a Colorado stadium he has never played in before that is exactly one mile high, here comes another chance for Newton to rise.
Six years. Can you believe that?
Newton, 27, begins his sixth year in the NFL Thursday night. In Charlotte, we have watched him through five charismatic seasons: the first-ever Panthers NFL MVP; the wreck that could have ended his career or his life; the birth of his first child; the pouting after losses; the dabbing after wins; the Sunday football giveaways; the charitable works; the hats and the foxtails; the three straight playoff seasons. They are all as familiar to Panthers fans as their smartphone apps by now. The best quarterback the Panthers have ever had has ushered in the best era the Panthers have ever had.
Not all of this winning is because of Newton — Carolina had 10 Pro Bowl players last season, after all, as well as the Coach of the Year in Ron Rivera and one of the league’s best talent evaluators in general manager Dave Gettleman. But a lot of it is.
Newton has said he wants to become the best player who has played the game, and he is several Super Bowl rings away from getting in that area code. But he is already one of the most unique players the game has ever seen and currently “the top player in football,” according to Denver coach Gary Kubiak.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a player quite like him,” said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, who will broadcast Thursday night’s game. “MVP of the league. A guy that can throw it and is continuing to grow as a passer. But this ability of his to play fullback, to play halfback, to extend the ball across the goal line in harm’s way without fear of it getting knocked out of his hands in ways I have never seen before? Hurdling and flipping over players into the end zone — where ordinarily you’d go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t get my quarterback hit. I can’t get (him) hurt.’ ”
Said ESPN TV analyst Jon Gruden, speaking of Newton’s Super Bowl performance and how it will affect the 2016 season: “I’m confident that Cam will bounce back. He’s proven he has thick skin. … He is a dynamic talent, certainly, almost impossible to defend. You don’t know how to defend Carolina’s offense. You have no idea what plays they can run with this quarterback that can do the things he can do.”
Newton accounted for 45 of the Panthers’ 59 touchdowns last season — 35 passing and 10 more rushing. He also ripped down a pro-Green Bay banner in the Panthers’ stadium, treated every end zone like it was his own private dance club and organized joyous photo ops with teammates on the sideline while the game was still going on. You don’t like some or all of that? He really doesn’t care.
“When I look in the mirror, it’s me, you know what I’m saying?” Newton said earlier this year. “Nobody changed me. Nobody made me act this certain type of way. And I’m true to my roots. And it feels great.”
Newton spoke insightfully about his place in football before the Super Bowl on several occasions, saying things like: “I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people, because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
That sort of insight has been largely lacking this preseason. Newton’s interviews with local media in Charlotte have been short and perfunctory. The quarterback has largely dismissed any questions about the most recent Super Bowl, relevant social issues or what he wants to accomplish this season besides winning games. He wouldn’t even answer a question about how many times he had watched the Super Bowl videotape, labeling it too “personal,” and he shrugged off any idea that Thursday’s game might allow him to make a different statement.
When asked how he felt like he was playing right now in a somewhat testy pregame press conference Sunday, Newton replied: “Does it really matter?”
It does matter, of course. And you can bet Newton will make sure some things are different Thursday night, though. He is smart enough not to make the same mistakes twice. If there is a ball on the ground, he will try to leap on it (he didn’t do so with Carolina trailing only 16-10 in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl). And if the Panthers do lose, he won’t wear a black hoodie to his press conference and walk out of it abruptly. The quarterback’s maturity from Year One to Year Six has not been a straight line drawn upward, but it has occurred and is most noticed by the teammates who see him every day.
“Cam has matured so much,” said safety Tre Boston, “and it’s not like he was immature when I got here (in 2014). I’ve really seen him come into himself. … He’s a guy who can manage the field, manage everything around him but still have fun. A lot of people, they can look at Cam and see, ‘Oh, maybe he’s playing around.’ But you’ve got to know our team. We know when it’s time.”
Newton filmed a kids’ TV show for a large chunk of his offseason, but once he came back to Charlotte his teammates have been impressed by a work ethic that has improved dramatically since his rookie season.
Said fullback Mike Tolbert of Newton’s dedication during this past summer: “Same grit, same grind. He’s a stickler for the work. … On off days, I’m usually one of the first ones here. And you see him in the meeting room, looking at film. By himself.”
Said linebacker Luke Kuechly of Newton: “His competitive drive is one of his greatest attributes. The best thing about him is he’s always looking to learn.”
Combine that with Newton’s 6-foot-5, 248-pound build and you’ve got a monstrously good player. Said Von Miller, the Denver linebacker who wrecked Newton’s Super Bowl seven months ago and caused the fumble Newton didn’t leap on: “If I had sons that wanted to play quarterback, I would point them … in the direction of Cam Newton.”
But for Newton to fulfill his goal of being considered as one of the all-time greats, he must win at least one championship and probably several. And he will have to outplay fearsome opponents such as Miller consistently, starting Thursday night.
Newton did offer a bit of perspective Sunday when he said of the Denver contest: “This is the type of game that you pretty much set your legacy.”
Yes it is. And finally, after seven months to think about what might have been in Super Bowl 50, it’s finally time for another kickoff that matters against the team that crushed Carolina’s biggest dream.
When the Panthers signed Newton to a landmark contract extension in 2015, Rivera and Gettleman said publicly that they did so because Newton could take the team to the “promised land.”
If the quarterback is truly going to fulfill that promise, there is no better place to start than Denver.
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