Cam Newton threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns in his NFL debut. For good measure, he added a one-yard rushing touchdown that gave his Panthers a third-quarter lead. He wound up and strummed the ball like a guitar in the end zone and pantomimed pulling open his shirt in his famous Superman celebration, though his Panthers would fall to the Cardinals 28–21. But the headlines came from that eye-popping three-digit number: The much-hyped Auburn product, the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, was the first quarterback ever to throw for more than 400 yards in his NFL debut.
The next week, he did it again. In his second game, Newton tallied 432 yards with his arm, and added 53 more plus another score with his legs. But his three interceptions cost Carolina in another seven-point loss, this time to the Packers.
He is still the only QB to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back games as a rookie, let alone in his first two NFL starts. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Patrick Mahomes—they’ve never gone 400–400 at all. Newton finished that year with 4,051 yards (then a rookie record), earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl berth as the QB of a 6–10 team.
While his career got off to an auspicious start through the air, it was his work on the ground that was even more, well, groundbreaking. Newton rushed for 14 touchdowns in that 2011 season, not just a rookie QB record, but an all-time QB record, and one that still stands today.
Cam Newton’s average passing yards per game may have slowed from that impossible-to-sustain 400-yard clip, but his proclivity for finding himself in the end zone simply never stopped. Now a full decade into his career, Newton has scored 69 touchdowns. In doing so, he has left every other quarterback who ever played the game in his dust, like so many helpless linebackers and safeties along the way.
The old quarterback record belonged to Otto Graham, the Hall of Famer who threw for 174 TDs and ran for 44 for the Cleveland Browns in the 1940s and ‘50s. In the Super Bowl era, Steve Young finished with 43. Newton passed Young and matched Graham at the age of 27, in 2016’s opening-night rematch of Super Bowl 50 against the Broncos.
As young, mobile quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Kyler Murray have entered the league and hit the ground running, Newton’s record of 14 rushing scores in a season looks to have its most serious challenger over the next four weeks: Newton himself. Despite missing one game to COVID-19, Newton has scored 11 times in his first 11 games as a New England Patriot, putting him on pace for, yes, 15 TDs in 15 games.
Whether he breaks his own record or not, Newton’s performance this year makes him overdue for an appreciation. He scored his 10th and 11th touchdowns in last week’s 45–0 romp over the Chargers, first by bullying his way through tacklers and later by leaping over them. All in a day’s work.
Newton has made a mockery of the all-time rushing TD list for his fellow quarterbacks, bludgeoning the career totals of everyone who has preceded him. He’s more than doubled up John Elway and more than tripled up Warren Moon. He has as many scores as Randall Cunningham and Daunte Culpepper combined. More than Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb between them. A dozen more than Steve McNair and Russell Wilson put together.
So a curious thing has happened in the five years since Newton broke the QB record. With no more quarterbacks left to pass, he has taken on a more daunting task: passing running backs. You know, the guys whose full-time job it is to run the ball into the end zone. No running back is safe. He has leapt over career totals of Pro Bowlers, superstars and Hall of Famers as easily as he leaps over piles of powerless defenders at the goal line.
This year alone, he has gone from 55th on the list (tied with Mike Alstott and Jamal Lewis) to 32nd (tied with Steven Jackson, Gerald Riggs and Steve Van Buren). He has equaled or surpassed six Pro Football Hall of Famers in 11 games as a Patriot: Van Buren, Thurman Thomas, Larry Csonka, Lenny Moore, O.J. Simpson and Terrell Davis. Again, those are Hall of Fame running backs. None of them ran the ball into the end zone more than Cam Newton.
Who else has he passed this season? Maurice Jones-Drew, Eddie George, Ricky Williams and Hershel Walker, among others. Guys famous mostly for being handed the football and running it beyond the line of scrimmage, often not stopping until they’ve scored a touchdown. Fred Taylor, Willis McGahee, Ahman Green, Brandon Jacobs. The list goes on and on with players who had really good careers … by running back standards.
With 14 scores in his rookie season, 10 in his MVP season (2015), and 11 this season, Newton has now reached double-digits for the third time in his career. Would it surprise you to hear that’s unheard of for a quarterback as well? That’s more 10-TD seasons than Jerome Bettis. Or Tony Dorsett. Or Tiki Barber, LeSean McCoy or Chris Johnson.
So how far will he go? You’d be forgiven if you thought coming into this season that he’d slow down dramatically. He scored only four times in 2018, when a shoulder injury hampered him in the second half and kept him out of the last two games. He played only two games in 2019, thanks to a foot injury, and was held off the board. He waited about as long as possible to sign with a new team for 2020, given questions about his health and the unusual, mostly virtual offseason.
But Newton’s play in 2020, while up and down in many ways (he has just five touchdown passes, on a team mostly devoid of receiving talent), has shown the two most important things relative to his climb: He is still deserving of one of the NFL’s 32 starting QB jobs and he can still cross the plane of the goal line with the ball in his hands. Could he enter the top 20? One more season matching his 2020 total would get him there. Could he reach the top 15? Scoring 17 more touchdowns certainly doesn’t feel impossible. That would tie him with Priest Holmes, and have him staring up at NFL backfield royalty, a list of almost exclusively Hall of Famers whom we know by one name.
Descriptors like generational talent and unicorn are overused these days. But it’s very much true that Newton is singular in this one particular part of his game, by such a wide margin that his numbers look like setting the computer to rookie mode for the specific purpose of breaking this record.
He is one of the greatest goal-line weapons of all-time, with 19 of his scores coming from within a yard, 33 of them within two and 50 of them within five.
The proper time will come for us to talk about his legacy and his Hall of Fame candidacy, and we don’t have to rush into that debate here, with Newton just 31 years old and several chapters in his story still likely to come. But beyond the obviously sure-fire Hall of Famers currently wrapping up storied careers, there is a second tier of players who have benefited from rules modifications and a new environment that has made it easier than ever to play a long time and amass passing yardage totals previously thought impossible.
While many of Newton’s peers have flashier passing numbers, his unique prowess as a runner factors into his overall production. His 5,241 yards, by the way, trail only Michael Vick.
I can already hear some of you scoffing that I’d put Cam Newton and Hall of Fame in the same paragraph. And I’m not putting him in Canton today. But could you deny him if he someday has more passing yards than Joe Montana and more rushing touchdowns than all but the Eric Dickersons of the world?
It may be true that rushing touchdowns are not a traditional measure of a quarterback’s worth or ability, but we’ve also never seen someone make them such a big part of their resume. It’s not just a hefty slice of his value, but an area where he’s been dominant.
Greatness can be measured in many ways. If you are an all-time great running back, you should keep your head on a swivel, because Cam may be chasing you down. For the rest of us, we can simply appreciate his unique career as it continues unfolding and watch how high he can climb.