Cam Newton either has a lot left or nothing at all. Four seasons ago, he was the NFL’s MVP, leader of a team that went 15-1 — the loss against the Falcons — and made the Super Bowl. Now he’s unemployed. He didn’t age out of his job. (He’s 30.) His body, however, may be damaged beyond repair.
He has had two rounds of shoulder surgery — one in 2017, the other in January 2019. As we know from Mike Soroka discussions, baseball teams cringe when a pitcher feels a pinch in the shoulder. Rule of thumb: Elbows are easy; shoulders are hard. The shoulder shuttered Newton with two games remaining in 2018. He lasted two games last season, and in the second he looked as if he were 50, not 30.
That was the night when the B-word — broken — affixed itself to Newton. Against Tampa Bay on a Thursday, he completed fewer than half his 51 passes. He averaged 6.5 yards per pass. He was sacked three times. He rushed twice for zero yardage. That was Sept. 12. He hasn’t played since.
It would later be learned that Newton had a Lisfranc fracture — i.e., a broken bone in his foot — that he likely sustained in preseason. That might have explained the lack of running, and it could have gone a ways toward explaining away the inaccuracy. (It’s tough to step into a throw if a dog, so to speak, is barking.) Still, Carolina’s response to the ailing Newton was strange even by Carolina standards. After the Tampa game, then-coach Ron Rivera said: “The foot has nothing to do with it.”
The Panthers didn’t put him on injured reserve until Nov. 5. He kept seeing different foot specialists, and apparently one finally said, “You know, this isn’t healing.”
Carolina fired Rivera, Newton’s longtime champion, four weeks later. The franchise had just changed ownership, David Tepper buying the club from the disgraced Jerry Richardson in May 2018. Marty Hurney had become general manager a few months earlier. Today there’s almost no part of Carolina’s Super Bowl run that remains in place. The irresistible linebacker Luke Kuechly retired in January. The estimable tight end was cut shortly thereafter. Now Newton’s gone, too.
Some of this is understandable. Matt Ruhle, lately of Baylor, is the head coach, and the hot-hot-hot offensive coordinator is Joe Brady, last seen turning Joe Burrow into the finest season by any quarterback in collegiate annals. It’s doubtful those two would have embraced an offense predicated on Newton’s short passes to Olsen and the quarterback’s unstoppable surges on third-and-short. (Remember the Panthers’ slogan from their mid-decade glory days? Keep pounding.)
Coming off one the three greatest seasons in college history — the other two: Herschel Walker’s freshman year and the one Burrow just completed — Newton was taken No. 1 overall in 2011. The Panthers labored long to fit their team around his skills, which aren’t the same as other quarterbacks’ skills. He threw for 4,000 yards only as a rookie. Matt Ryan, working in the same NFC South, has topped 4,000 yards the past eight years. Newton’s career passing percentage is 59.6. Only one of Ryan’s 12 NFL seasons has yielded a completion percentage lower than 61.1.
Yes, Newton offset some of his passing inefficiency by being a rampaging runner. Still, what made him an MVP at 26 mightn’t still apply. That doubt is why Carolina was willing to part with its franchise quarterback of nine years. The Panthers weren’t sure Cam Newton could be Cam Newton again.
We all laughed when, as Newton was en route to a Heisman Trophy, Mark Richt said Georgia had considered the Westlake High product a fine tight end prospect. There has never been an NFL quarterback with this body. Newton is listed as two inches taller and one pound lighter than Vic Beasley, whose job is to tackle quarterbacks. The peculiarities in his passing weren’t enough to keep him from winning games — the Panthers made the playoffs four times over five seasons — and if he’s healthy there’s no reason he couldn’t do that again.
But that’s the question: Is he healthy? ESPN reports he had a physical this week in Atlanta, with both shoulder and foot deemed fine. The Panthers cut him anyway. They spent $63 million for free agent Teddy Bridgewater, and by shedding Newton they saved $19.1 million in cap money. A macro view suggests Carolina, under Ruhle and Brady, is simply ready for something new. Cam was The Man in Charlotte – until he wasn’t.
Where he lands will be fascinating. Not every franchise needs a quarterback of Newton’s skill set. Not every team would be willing to accommodate his ego. He’s accustomed to being No. 1 — it’s even his jersey number — and it would take a bold franchise to ask him to accede to backup duty. Complicating matters is the timing: Under the cloud of coronavirus, teams are barred from conducting workouts or medical exams. Nobody’s going to sign him until they’re sure he’s still a reasonable facsimile of himself.
Which he might not be. Back to the B-word: That was all you heard in NFL circles after that Thursday night against Tampa: “Cam looks broken.” Once you’ve had that tag attached, it takes a lot to rip it off. Even for the quarterback who styles himself as a Man of Steel, this might be beyond his superpowers.
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