A couple of years ago, I spoke to Panthers coach Ron Rivera about Cam Newton. We were discussing Newton’s presence around Charlotte and his habit of randomly entering pickup games involving any sport at various places. “People will come up to me and say, ‘My kid was having a birthday party, and Cam walked by and threw the football,’” Rivera told me. Then he made a connection that surprised me: “I was in Chicago when Michael Jordan was around,” Rivera said. “And there were always stories about him driving around, stopping at the playground and playing—and like with Cam, it’s because they love competition.”
Cam Newton is not Michael Jordan. But there have been times when it may have felt that way. At his peak, especially in 2015, Newton was a singular force on the field, a charismatic superstar who became the symbol of his franchise and his city. There are two types of football observers: Those who appreciate how good Cam Newton was at his best, and people who do not know what they are talking about. Newton was placed on the injured reserve on Tuesday, effectively ending a season in which he was plagued by a foot injury and a shoulder injury. He has one more year left on his deal, but there’s plenty of informed speculation that Newton may have played his final game for the Panthers. ESPN’s David Newton wrote that Cam Newton’s contract; other players (like running back Christian McCaffrey or linebacker Shaq Thompson) coming due for big money; and Newton’s injury-plagued, declining production are reasons the Panthers will likely move on.
If this is the end of Newton’s tenure in Carolina—though there are reasons to think it shouldn’t be—there are two ways this can go: Newton can get healthy and return to being a top quarterback with another team, or he might never get healthy again, ending his time as a starting quarterback and leaving behind one of the more fascinating legacies of any quarterback of his generation.
It is not a stretch to say Newton might have the most fascinating legacy of any player this decade if he never regains his old form. There are only five active quarterbacks who have won the MVP: Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Newton. Newton’s 2015 MVP season helped the Panthers to a 15-1 season and a Super Bowl appearance. Newton’s peak was short, only five or six years, but it was quite a peak. When he was named the NFL’s top player on the 2016 NFL Top 100 list, the accompanying video featured a lot of praise for his dominant play. Gerald McCoy called him the best escape artist in the league, Kirk Cousins noted that Cousins’s hands are small to the point that if he dove across the goal line to score as Newton does, he’d fumble. Then–Colts punter Pat McAfee said it most succinctly: “Whenever he first got to the NFL, people looked at him and said, ‘If this guy figures it out, we’re all in trouble.’ And he’s figured it out.” Figuring it out meant setting rookie passing records in 2011 and then getting even better four years later. Figuring it out, of course, meant being what Chip Kelly referred to at the time as a “legitimate dual threat.” But Newton never again reached the same heights as he did early in his career. He has made just one All-Pro team (first team in 2015), and injuries may end his Panthers career at age 30. If we never see Newton at his peak again, it is nothing short of a football tragedy.
The history of the NFL this decade looks very different without Newton. With the help of then–Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula, Newton succeeded in adapting the elements of the college game that made him successful in the pros. Newton was the first rookie to throw for 400 yards in his debut. He also helped usher in the decade’s read-option revolution—he averaged 15 yards per run on the play in 2017. Newton helped change the game for a lot of quarterbacks, but there are no other quarterbacks to emulate him. That’s the point. That’s his legacy: There’s only one Cam Newton.
The Panthers will save $19 million if they release him. The problem is that a fairly healthy Newton is worth way more to a team than cap space. Paying Newton his $21 million salary next season and risking that he’ll be healthy may be a gamble worth taking in a league where Jared Goff makes $36 million. Newton’s cap hit is scheduled to be lower than Joe Flacco’s. If the Panthers believe Newton will not be healthy in 2020, then moving on from him makes sense; if he can get healthy, it doesn’t. There are three types of quarterback contracts in this league: the rookie contract, which is the cheapest; the recently signed mega-contract, which is the most expensive; and the group Newton is in: a mega-contract that is a few years old. Because quarterbacks are always getting more expensive, deals like Newton’s, signed in June 2015, eventually become a bargain.
Assuming he gets healthy, Newton immediately becomes the best quarterback available on the open market if the Panthers cut him loose. It is nearly impossible to tell at this point which quarterback jobs will become open—injuries, trades, and coaching changes can shift everything. The Bears or Bucs will likely have an immediate need for a good quarterback next year, and who knows whether other teams, like the Titans or Bengals, will join them? You know where a healthy Newton would be a good fit? The Carolina Panthers. Kyle Allen has been fine, with an 87.8 quarterback rating, but he’s nothing close to a decently healthy Newton. Of course, that version of Newton may be far away, and the Panthers might want to move on rather than wait for it to return.
Newton’s release would be a significant cap-saving maneuver. Consider his hit alongside other candidates whose teams might be ready to move on from them:
2020 Cap Savings if Released (assumes Pre-June 1st)— Spotrac (@spotrac) November 5, 2019
Cam Newton: $19.1M
Andy Dalton: $17.7M
Joe Flacco: $10.05M
Ben Roethlisberger: $8.5M
Mitchell Trubisky: $0
Alex Smith: -$10.8M
Nick Foles: -$11.75M
Matt Ryan: -$29.85M
There are very few things that aged worse in football than the predraft conversation around Newton. Pro Football Weekly reported NFL evaluators used the phrase “con artist” when discussing Newton, who won a Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to a national championship in 2010. PFW’s scouting report accused Newton of having a “fake smile.” This happened this decade. Newton was not a con artist. He was a good quarterback who acted like a lot of quarterbacks: confident and occasionally grouchy toward the media. If we’re going to start ejecting quarterbacks in the draft process for that, there won’t be many quarterbacks left. The predraft conversation didn’t let up from there. He was criticized in 2016 for leaving the podium during a Super Bowl media session, which The New York Times referred to as “his humiliation.” It was all very weird.
For most of Newton’s career, the conversation centered on so many things other than how good he was, which complicates his legacy among fans and media. What might merit more discussion is just how banged up Newton may have been for his entire career. ESPN calculated he’s been hit 1,235 times in his career, far more than any other passer.
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert wrote in 2016 that since entering the league, Newton has run more than double the designed runs of any other quarterback, and nearly two-thirds of those runs were between the guards. He also scrambled more than anyone else. This left him open to some massive hits—even on passing plays. Rivera once compared the way Newton was officiated to Shaquille O’Neal, saying his size meant refs would let defenders get away with more. Fox officiating analyst Mike Pereira told me refs oftentimes didn’t call fouls on hits against players like Newton because they weren’t in a typical “passing posture” like a quarterback who didn’t scramble. All of this was deeply unfair to Newton, who by metrics or the eye test took a shellacking most other quarterbacks didn’t. Whether that led directly to his banged-up 2019 season is impossible to say. Regardless, it will be hard for Newton to regain the form he had. This is a player who broke Otto Graham’s record for passing yards in a professional debut. He broke the record for most rushing touchdowns in a season that year—rookies or any other quarterback. He got better from there. The NFL is a deeply unfair league. One hit can end a career, and if you take 1,235 of them, it gets hard to avoid the type of hit that could change your career.
I remember being in the Panthers locker room during Newton’s second season for a story I was doing on the read-option. I was asking some players if they thought the play was sustainable. When I think about Newton, I think about the answer tight end Greg Olsen gave me. It wasn’t even about the read-option, per se, it was just a defiant statement: “Cam Newton,” he said, “is not a fad.” He was right. He is one of the best players of this decade. It will be a loss for football if he doesn’t play well into the next decade.