- In what was supposed to be a season of redemption, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has instead been relegated to a sideshow.
This was supposed to be Cam Newton’s year.
Newton had the sort of 2015 that turns a mere superstar into a generational figure. He was the MVP. His team went 15–1 and waltzed into the Super Bowl. His was the second-best-selling jersey in the sport. He dabbed. Perhaps more than anything else, he appeared to be enjoying himself in a league that has a self-destructive tendency to frown on any mirth. Even his Super Bowl nightmare, which included a controversial did-he-go-hard-enough-after-a-fumble and a postgame brush-off of an aggressive media swarm, showed how secure he was in his place as the player in the NFL. Everybody had an opinion about Newton. And we all only have opinions about players who matter.
Newton was the NFL’s LeBron James, going through the plot points of a classic career narrative, the breakthrough followed by the fall from grace. This year was to be the Comeback. Having learned the lesson of Super Bowl 50, he would replicate his MVP form and return the Panthers to the Promised Land, where he’d be the Cam Newton everyone expected. He would shine on the brightest stage and secure his place among the most thrilling talents in NFL history. He would be a champion. He would be a 6' 5", 245-pound throwing, running Superman.
It has not turned out that way. In the first game of the season, the Broncos repeated their Super Bowl—winning strategy of hitting Newton hard enough to make him look human. Battered by a series of vicious hits to the head, only one of them penalized, Newton has not been the same since. He was terrorized by the Vikings, throwing three interceptions among an onslaught of eight sacks in a 22–10 defeat, and was blitzed into confusion and disorientation in a 48–33 loss to the Falcons. Most crushingly, his valiant, vintage Cam comeback fell short against New Orleans on Oct. 16. The loss dropped the Panthers to 1–5 and lowered their odds of reaching the playoffs to 2.3%, according to Football Outsiders. Forget making it back to the Super Bowl, the Panthers will be fortunate to make it to .500.
What happened? Well, opening-night beatdown aside, Newton showed against the Saints that he’s still Cam: If someone can look brash while trying to overcome a 14-point deficit against the lowly Saints, Cam Newton can. But the team around him doesn’t look much like last year’s. The offense has struggled to generate big plays (only 11 passing plays have gone for 25 yards or more, 21st in the league) and holding on to the ball (17 turnovers, 30th in the league). And the defense, without cornerback Josh Norman, who now plays for Washington, is below average (26th in points allowed). Carolina has also had its share of bad luck; its 2–5 feels different from, say, the Jaguars’ 2–5.
But feelings don’t matter. The Great Cam Comeback was over almost before it began. It’s not even Thanksgiving, and he’s done. There is no LeBron parallel. There were years when LeBron wasn’t popular, but there was never a year when fans didn’t have to pay attention to him. No one has to pay attention to Newton now.
Not that we’re not still trying. Like an amputee reaching for a phantom limb, we media folk try to hold on to the old Cam story lines, hoping to squeeze a few more page views and Embrace Debate points out of him. When he rushed through a cliché-filled press conference after the gut-wrenching loss to New Orleans, reporters tried to fire up another round of Cam vs. the Media and Is Cam Mature Enough to Be a Leader? takes. And we all tried to dutifully restart the machine when Cam groused about the referees not protecting him, saying, “I don’t feel safe out there," after beating the Cardinals on Sunday. (Considering what happened in Week 1, he might have a point.) But it didn’t feel like anyone’s heart was in it. How much can any pundit go after a guy who’s 2–5?
Newton has a long career ahead of him—he’s only 27. But that’s the issue. This is the prime of his playing life, a defending MVP ready to ascend to his place among the best quarterbacks in recent history, and he’s 2–5. And we’re spending more time talking about Dak Prescott and Colin Kaepernick and Sam freaking Bradford than Cam Newton. And when we do talk about Newton, it’s about the refs more than his play.
We’re always eager to anoint a new superstar, a new hero. But NFL fans are a lot like NFL executives: If a player doesn’t produce, they move on. Last year, it felt as if no one would ever stop talking about Cam Newton. This year, we stopped. It wasn’t that hard. We thought Newton was the story of the NFL, but no one player ever is.