“All I know is work,” he said in one video, huffing. “All I know is work. That’s all I know. They gave up on me.”
If Brady’s final chapter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the most compelling quarterback angle in football, the challenge facing Newton should be next on the list. Considering that the GOAT candidacy of Brady is bulletproof, what happens to Newton may be more important, at least to one potentially transformative aspect of the game’s future.
We’re in the afterglow of a banner 2019 season for African American NFL quarterbacks. It was the most significant year of collective black QB excellence in league history, from Lamar Jackson’s MVP campaign to Patrick Mahomes’s grit in winning the Super Bowl MVP. Furthermore, it was a progressive season for all mobile, nontraditional quarterbacks who historically have dealt with the misconception that their athleticism can be detrimental to their development as pocket passers.
But was 2019 a watershed moment or an anomaly? This is where Newton, who at age 30 is already one of the most accomplished black, nontraditional quarterbacks ever, factors into the conversation. When tracking societal progress, there’s a tendency to make grand proclamations about isolated moments without verifying their sustainability. In reality, it takes a lot more than the supposed breakthrough to truly break through.
For this new wave of quarterbacks to change the game in an irreversible manner, it requires more than Jackson, Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott sharing one magical season. They must continue to raise the bar and inspire others to help them set a new standard. But it also means much to note what happens when a quarterback such as Newton, who in 2015 became the second black NFL quarterback to earn regular season MVP honors, falls down. Will he be allowed a legitimate second chance?
Even when you temper the free agency expectations because he is recovering from injury, it’s still alarming that there is so little buzz about interest in Newton. His situation is as complicated as his mercurial personality, but when healthy, he is a dangerous, touchdown-generating offensive weapon. He stays out of trouble off the field, and he has tremendous football character as one of those hypercompetitive athletes with the ability and determination to will his team to victory.
The hope is that, if he can provide the proper medical assurances (not easy to do during the current state of this novel coronavirus pandemic), he will be offered a starting job with an appropriate salary for a quarterback of his stature. The fear is he may not get that chance immediately. And that would be a significant setback to the notion that the game has changed at the position.
Of course, it’s deeper than race. Injuries have slowed Newton, leading the Panthers to release the 2011 No. 1 pick this week. He appeared in just two games last season and is recovering from Lisfranc foot surgery in December. As a professional, he has had no real character dings, but he will put a cleat in his mouth and create silly controversies from time to time.
Still, the greatest concern will be the abuse his body has taken. He has rushed 934 times in his career and taken 291 sacks. Let’s consider that 1,225 carries. How much of a workload is it? Running back Devonta Freeman, who has been in the NFL for six seasons and has made 59 starts, has amassed 951 carries and 257 receptions. Crunch all the numbers, and you can make a convincing case that Newton has endured the equivalent of four seasons’ worth of starting running back punishment. It’s not a perfect comparison; he doesn’t take as many hard hits. But it’s not that far off because, unlike most quarterbacks who run, Newton has had a knack for rushing inside, similar to a bell-cow tailback.
In his career, Newton has had procedures on his ankle, mid-foot, back (after a car accident), rotator cuff and on his throwing shoulder a second time. So his health is a major issue for teams, as well as for the perception of mobile quarterbacks who absorb a lot of hits. The old longing for the classic pocket passer could intensify, as could the desire to pigeonhole athletic signal-callers by putting them in outdated “pro” systems.
So with Newton, it’s a multifaceted issue. But you can’t tell the story of the NFL or football in general without delving into the vast prejudice against black quarterbacks that has plagued the sport. While there was progress over several decades before a 2019 season that ESPN’s the Undefeated dubbed “The Year of the Black Quarterback,” there is no finality to the conversation. Newton’s next opportunity — or, heaven forbid, his lack of opportunities — is worthy of observation and scrutiny.
On the back end of progress, there is often regression. In every fight for equality, there is a saying that proves eerily consistent: Two steps forward, one step back. Even President Obama had to make the reference in his farewell address.
Black people often wonder: Are we there yet? But the route to “there” isn’t a linear path with easily recognizable mile markers. Many of us like to joke that we know the perception of black quarterbacks is changing not because of the superstars but because an erratic, turnover machine such as Jameis Winston can retain a starting job. Well, there goes that thought.
A somewhat complementary principle can apply to the Newton situation. Black quarterbacks haven’t made it until they can fall and get up without their comeback turning into an ordeal.
If Newton doesn’t rise, I am not saying that racism broke his body. He has to get right and perform; if he cannot, that is on him. But as he gets healthy and seeks his next opportunity, I’m eager to evaluate black quarterback progress through the prism of his journey in free agency. Pending medical clearance, there is no reason for Newton not to be a coveted player in a league always searching for quarterbacks.
Wilson is the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, and he continues to prove himself worthy. Prescott may soon surpass him. Within the next year, Mahomes figures to blow both of them out of the water. And Jackson is a reigning MVP who can’t jump high enough to touch his ceiling.
But for the black quarterback, this isn’t the new normal. Not yet. There’s still much to figure out. There’s much work left to sustain this growth. And Newton, straining in pursuit of a revival, is still a seminal figure in the movement.
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