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Has the NFL Given Up on Cam Newton?

The quarterback who once seemed poised to become the face of the league is still without a franchise. Where could he sign—and why are teams so reluctant to give a player known for superhuman feats a shot?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What do we do with a broken superhuman? Fixing one is more difficult than it is with a regular human, because we have a tougher time identifying how superhumans do the things that they do. If Cam Newton is any indication, we choose to simply move on from broken superhumans, pretending they’re less valuable than non-super, decidedly regular people.

Newton, who is responsible for the greatest individual college football season of all time and one of the more impressive NFL seasons of the past decade, remains unsigned more than six weeks after the start of free agency. With the market for quarterbacks relatively clear on the heels of the draft, he’s still available. The Carolina Panthers have unceremoniously decided that he’s no longer the face of their franchise. On March 17, they granted him permission to seek trades—an apparent attempt to convince the public that Newton, not the Panthers, wanted to end their nine-year relationship. A week later, the Panthers outright released him.

At the start of the 2010s, Newton seemed poised to take over the NFL. Then he did. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 2011, and within five years had won MVP and led the league’s no. 1 offense to a Super Bowl appearance. Newton was set to become the perpetually smiling face of football. Peak Cam Newton felt less like other quarterbacks and more like LeBron James: an unmatched combination of size, speed, power, and just enough finesse to keep defenses honest, capable of doling out punishment to opponents game after game without ever showing signs of wear and tear. He seemed bulletproof. In 2014, Newton suffered two transverse process fractures in his lower back during a car crash—and 11 days later, he both threw for and ran for a touchdown in a win over the Browns. In photos of the medics tending to him, he was grinning.

Now, at the start of the 2020s, the soon-to-be 31-year-old Newton is unwanted. In each of the past two seasons, he has tried to play through injury, performing below his standard before getting season-ending surgery. Instead of Newton’s iconic moment coming in the form of a post-touchdown Superman pose, it seems more and more likely that the defining moment of his career will be that time he didn’t dive for the ball. With Carolina driving to take a fourth-quarter lead in Super Bowl 50, Newton was strip-sacked by Broncos pass rusher Von Miller. As the game of his life skittered away from him, Newton squared up the ball and prepared to pounce—and then flinched, unwilling to launch his body into a fray of Denver defenders.

Throughout Newton’s prime, critics said his passion for physical play was unsustainable for an NFL quarterback over the long term. After his Super Bowl hesitation, the quarterback who hurled his body into defenders time and again was criticized for shying away from glory when it necessitated physical pain. Now, those long-term concerns seem to have been right, as Newton’s ability to withstand injury was, in fact, too good to be true. As the months and weeks pass with Newton lacking a team, we’re nearing the worst possible ending: Not only were we wrong to believe in Newton’s indestructibility, but we could always associate his fleeting moment of weakness as his last, best chance to win a title.

Newton has repeatedly proved himself capable of willing his teams to success without much help. Take the sheer dominance of his Auburn career. In 2009, Auburn went 8-5. In 2011, it went 8-5, and in 2012 it went 3-9 and winless in SEC play, leading to the firing of head coach Gene Chizik. In between those mediocre seasons was a 14-0 campaign that culminated in a national championship, and the only thing that made it possible was Cam’s heroic presence. Newton threw for 30 touchdowns and ran for 20 more in 2010 (and had the most impressive touchdown catch any quarterback has ever made). It didn’t matter if Auburn was trailing by 24 points against Alabama, its biggest rival—there was no moment when Cam couldn’t rise above every other college football player on the planet.

Newton became the first player to win the Heisman Trophy and the national championship before going no. 1 in the NFL draft. (He was joined this year by Joe Burrow.) And he was essentially a solo act: Only one other player from Auburn’s 2010 offense, left tackle Lee Ziemba, was picked in the 2011 draft, going in the seventh round to the Panthers and playing in six total games. Outside of Newton, the most prominent NFL player from that Auburn offense was lineman Brandon Mosley, who was a 2012 fourth-round pick of the Giants and started one game. The only one of Newton’s college receivers, running backs, or tight ends to appear in a regular-season NFL game was Onterio McCalebb, who played five snaps on special teams for the Bengals in 2014.

With the Panthers, Newton once again took over an offense without many exciting parts and played exceptionally well with what he had. Carolina never helped Newton out by signing top receivers; it had Steve Smith when Newton was drafted, but released the perpetual Pro Bowler in 2014 and watched him sign a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Ravens. Incidentally, a three-year, $10.5 million contract is exactly the cost of the largest receiver contract the Panthers gave out while Newton played for the team, via a 2017 deal handed to forgettable backup Russell Shepard. (This is not a joke: The largest receiver contract the Panthers signed during Newton’s decade with the team was with Russell Shepard.) He did have Greg Olsen, one of the best tight ends in the league, but Olsen hardly seems to make up for the lack of talent in the receiving corps. (A last insult: The Panthers signed Robby Anderson to a $20 million contract the day Newton was cut.)

It didn’t matter: In 2015, Newton’s Panthers became just the 18th team in NFL history to score 500 points. It’s often assumed that Carolina’s Luke Kuechly–led defense powered the team to that season’s Super Bowl, but Newton’s offense led the league in scoring while the defense was sixth in points allowed. The Panthers went 15-1 (after starting 14-0) and averaged 35 points per game from Week 9 through their 49-15 rout of the Cardinals in the NFC championship game. Newton fell one touchdown shy of the league lead while pacing all quarterbacks in rushing yardage. The Panthers’ starting receivers during the Super Bowl run were Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey “Philly” Brown.

But Newton no longer seems capable of being a one-man wrecking crew. In 2018, the Panthers opened 6-2, but then lost six in a row before Newton underwent surgery to address a nagging shoulder issue. In 2019, Newton was clearly hobbled from the start, failing to throw a touchdown in either of the two games he played in before having season-ending foot surgery. It feels like Newton is breaking down.

Now, seemingly every NFL team has its starting quarterback plan in place for the 2020 season. Essentially the only franchises that could upgrade are the Jaguars and Patriots. Jacksonville appears to believe in Gardner Minshew II, a sixth-round pick from last year who had a surprisingly strong rookie showing, but Newton could be a worthwhile addition in case that season was just a flash in the pan. New England has Jarrett Stidham, a 2019 fourth-round pick, and almost no cap space with which to sign Cam. If you tell someone affiliated with Auburn that Stidham is a starting NFL quarterback in 2020 and Newton is not, they will not believe you.

Outside of the Jags and Pats, there’s not much of a market for Newton. Las Vegas could be a fit, but it recently brought in Marcus Mariota to back up Derek Carr. Chicago could be an option, but it just traded for Nick Foles to push Mitchell Trubisky. Washington head coach Ron Rivera, who worked with Newton for his entire career in Carolina, has talked about bringing in Newton, but the team is betting that Dwayne Haskins is its future. Newton’s options feel limited to signing as a backup or sitting out the 2020 season unless he’s called upon as an injury replacement.

And so, teams have to ask themselves: Is Newton still a superhero capable of leading a team to glory? Or is he now a broken thing? Unanimously, they have apparently decided the latter. This seems like a miscalculation. The last time Newton was healthy, he was still effective: From Week 1 through Week 11 of the 2018 season, Newton averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, threw a touchdown on 6.1 percent of his passes, and rushed for nearly 40 yards per game—all better than his career averages. We’re less than two years removed from seeing an above-average version of Newton.

In some ways, Newton is responsible for his career falling short of its potential. He chose to throw his body into harm’s way time after time; he chose not to dive on that damn ball in the Super Bowl. But it still feels like Newton’s shortcomings stem more from a lack of opportunities provided by others. The Panthers never surrounded him with the supporting cast that he needed, forcing Cam to play to his absolute peak to achieve greatness, and ensuring that his biggest successes weren’t replicable. And now he is unsigned in spite of his proven ability to make magic. Sure, he’s struggled with injuries over the past two years—but shouldn’t the idea that Newton could shake them off and play like Cam Freakin’ Newton be enough to convince a team to take a shot?

I’ll always wonder what the man who did so much with so little could have done if he’d been given more to work with. As the league turns its back on him, though, I suspect we’ll never find out. Much like that Super Bowl ball, Newton’s chances at NFL glory are scooting away. I can’t believe no one is willing to take the dive.