Cam Newton must rediscover joy in football to evolve, thrive

after an NFL football game in Tampa, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. The Buccaneers won 17-16. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

after an NFL football game in Tampa, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. The Buccaneers won 17-16. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Is Cam Newton actually going to buy into the Carolina Panthers trying to “evolve” him? Does he really hate football at this moment? Was last season the fluke for the Panthers quarterback, or was it this year?

There are so many questions and so few answers for Newton these days. The jagged shards of his broken season glittered one final time Sunday during Carolina’s 17-16 loss that put the Panthers and their fans out of their misery.

“For me, I think me and football got a love-hate relationship,” Newton said in his postgame news conference. “And we’re not on good terms right now. I’m just going to leave her alone for a while.”

When I pressed Newton on this point later, he backtracked a little.

“That was just a joke by the way,” he said. “I don’t want to see on The Charlotte Observer, ‘Cam loves and now he hates football. He may not come back next year.’… Listen, I just want to get away from football, just like every person, by default. … I’m just going to get 100 percent (healthy) and miss it again.”

So don’t worry. Newton’s not about to quit — and I still feel that if he gets a better offensive line and more playmakers that he’s the right person for the job. The guy is a monstrous competitor who quite possibly shouldn’t have been playing at all Sunday — he threw three interceptions with a bum shoulder that caused him to float a lot of balls.

“I thought Cam Newton was about as courageous as it gets,” said coach Ron Rivera, who said he tried to take Newton out of the game but was talked into letting him stay in by the quarterback himself. “He didn’t want to come out. He tried to make some throws that he probably shouldn’t have.”

Rivera could have taken Newton out himself, of course. But the issue with the shoulder was pain management, not possible long-term damage.

Said Newton: “They asked me could I go. I said I could and that was the end of it. … I just wanted to show that I’m willing to leave it all out on the field.”

So Newton stayed in and led what could have been a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute. That went awry — just like the Panthers’ season — on his last play, however, when Newton correctly read a blitz and fired what could have been a successful two-point conversion pass to Greg Olsen. But Olsen slipped and fell down while making his cut. The throw was incomplete. The Panthers had lost their sixth game by three points or fewer this season.


So the Panthers finished 6-10, dead last in the NFC South after winning the division three years in a row. Rivera now says the team needs to “evolve” in its offense, and that’s certainly true given how average the offense was this season. That usually means fire some coaches, change the quarterback or make a new plan.

Rivera sounds like he doesn’t want to do No. 1 — although I’m not certain that window is entirely closed — and Newton isn’t going anywhere. So the team will need to use him more effectively — although Newton seemed somewhat neutral about the idea of an offensive reorganization when asked about it.

“I don’t know what ‘evolve’ means,” he said in response to one question about how the Panthers might “evolve” as an offense next season.

Asked whether the team should roll him out more and get him to throw more quick-hitting passes for short gains in 2017, Newton said: “Well, we’ve just got to get to winning football games. If that’s what it’s going to take, then I’m for it. I obviously don’t believe that that’s the case.”

What “that” is remained up for speculation, as Newton didn’t delve into the topic any further. Others seemed to have a better idea.

Said Panthers receiver Ted Ginn: “I just think as we go along in this deal, as Cam gets a little bit older and you start putting the playmakers around him, it gives him a chance to sit back and create things with his arm more than his feet. … The style of the game is different — pick it up and throw it quick or throw it to the right person at the right time. I think he is transferring over to that.”


Newton did sound frustrated at the way this season has gone, as well he should be. In his sixth NFL season, he regressed to what I believe was his worst year ever. Newton finished with more interceptions (14) than in any year except for his rookie year of 2011, and he ended up with career lows in completion percentage and quarterback rating, too.

He sounded after the game like he’s temporarily sick of football. He said his throwing shoulder wouldn’t need surgery but it would need: “Rest. Rest. A lot of rest.” He also said when I asked him what the offseason held for him: “Nothing. Just trying to teach Chosen (Newton’s 1-year-old son) the three-step dropback and getting him prepared to be a big brother.”

Newton’s longtime girlfriend Kia Proctor is pregnant with their second child, so he has some personal joy on his way. But he didn’t have nearly as much fun this season. Winning was the biggest part of that, but so was that (avoidable) concussion he got and all those big hits he took. Did you notice he stopped making that first-down signal late in the season? Did you notice you don’t see him smiling in photos in mid-scramble like you used to?

Newton has to rediscover the joy in his game, and it is the Panthers’ job to surround him with more talent (and some more imaginative play-calling, too).

I believe this season was the fluke and not 2015 — when Newton was the NFL Most Valuable Player — but that’s a legitimate question now after a season that should be crumpled up and burned.

Newton is only 27, and he said Sunday he still believes he can “dominate this league” when he is at his best. I think he can, too.

It was only a year ago when the quarterback accounted for 45 touchdowns during the regular season. This season, he had 24.

Newton must get the joy back. He must love football again. He must prove something — much like he had to do as a junior-college transfer or as an NFL rookie.

Cam has done all of this before: Evolved. Thrived. Won.

All of it can happen again.

But will it?