You care about him, even if you don’t care for him. Last Sunday, after Newton began his latest comeback attempt with a familiar touchdown run in which he managed to look both nimble and powerful, he ripped off his helmet and screamed “I’m back!” as loud and long as he could. He gave our diverse, quarrelsome football audience an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to debate. It was heartwarming for some, inflaming for others. But for Newton, it only mattered that people felt his fire again.
He’s still here, at 32 years old and with a frayed body after 11 seasons of NFL collisions. Six years ago, when he won the league MVP and led the Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 season, Newton seemed to be in the first half of a Hall of Fame career. He was 26. He was the NFL’s first Black quarterback to win the MVP outright (Steve McNair shared the honor with Peyton Manning in 2003). After the Panthers lost Super Bowl 50 to Denver, the upset young quarterback said little besides making a promise.
“We’ll be back,” he vowed.
In Newton’s story, being back means something different now. Injuries ruined his linear narrative. Since his 2015 MVP season, he has had to recover from major shoulder and foot ailments. Combine those with his previous significant injuries — an ankle ligament tear, a rib fracture and also non-football-related lower back fractures from a car crash — and Newton is a much older athlete than his birth certificate shows.
He has been on and off the field the past few years. He missed all but two games of the 2019 season. Carolina moved on, and Newton started 15 mostly lackluster games for New England last season as a post-Tom Brady stopgap. Now, after sitting at home for the first half of this season, he is back in Carolina as an emergency signing because Sam Darnold suffered a bad shoulder injury.
Newton accounted for two touchdowns in a thrilling, victorious cameo last week. On Sunday, he is expected to make his first start for the Panthers in two years against the Washington Football Team. It will be the Nostalgia Bowl. His former coach, Ron Rivera, will be on the opposing sideline at Bank of America Stadium. For three hours, Newton will feel like the Panthers’ franchise quarterback once more.
“I want everything that Cam brings,” Carolina Coach Matt Rhule told reporters this week. “I don’t want Cam Lite. I want full Cam.”
The game may be marketed as a time-traveling fairy tale, but underneath the sweet coating, this opportunity is a crucible for the former MVP. This is his audition to be seen as more than a fringe NFL player. There are two things Newton is competing to prove.
The most obvious is his viability as a starter, and there are stakes attached to his competence. The Panthers are a 5-5 team with a statistically brilliant, playoff-worthy defense, and Christian McCaffrey, their elite running back, is finally healthy. If Newton can manage games and make a few red-zone plays, the Panthers could slip into the postseason as a wild card, which would strengthen Newton’s case to the league that he deserves a No. 1 quarterback’s trust and paycheck.
But there’s something more subtle to achieve as well, something that isn’t merely based on performance. Considering all of his NFL experiences and his reputation as a good teammate, Newton shouldn’t be relegated to starter-or-bust status. Front offices view him this way, which is why it took so long before a team (New England) signed him before last season and why it took a half season and a crisis before another team (Carolina) opted for him this time. It’s a ridiculous notion and a misread, especially after Newton handled the preseason quarterback competition with Mac Jones in such a professional manner. It’s also a problem that frustrates many Black quarterbacks, particularly the former stars or ones who play with flair.
For too many of these QBs, they’re either one of the best 32 — or, really, one of the best 15 because those are the most secure starters — or they’re out of the league. They don’t get the backup jobs. They don’t get to transition from being a high-level starter, as Joe Flacco has. They are discarded long before they can become a journeyman in the Colt McCoy mold. The easy excuse for Colin Kaepernick’s disappearance was often that he wasn’t viewed as a backup. If Newton can’t revive his stardom, it’s already clear that most teams probably won’t respect his value as a mentor and study buddy in the quarterback room.
It shouldn’t be this way, but in everything Newton does, he’s also performing to be appreciated as more than a mega-athlete. His style and swagger are often misrepresented and used to attack his character. As he grew up in the spotlight, he was arrogant and silly at times. But that was his 20s. He’s a father now. He talks about the game differently, with a level of humility that comes from his struggles.
In New England last season, he didn’t perform well as Brady’s replacement, the most challenging of roles. But he was accountable, took the criticism and showed an introspective side. After the Patriots cut him, he reconsidered his coronavirus vaccine hesitance and took the shot. He was motivated because he was out of the game and wanted back in, obviously. But we live in a time of flamboyant American stubbornness, and it’s meaningful — and praiseworthy — that Newton didn’t retreat within himself. He looked deeper and changed. That says more about his character than any interpretation of a post-touchdown celebration.
The world of sports changes so quickly. Stardom moves at a disorienting pace, making it so easy to forget past greatness. But MVPs are not as effortlessly disregarded as it seems, and for most of the past six years, Newton has persisted as a memory of what he once was. Look at him, and you still see a specimen from another planet. Pay casual attention, and there are temporary moments when his play lives up to those expectations.
He’s not the same guy, however. He’s a diminished athlete — but a maturing adult. He can run, but he shouldn’t run through as many tackles. He is actually a more accurate passer, but he doesn’t have a cannon arm these days. He’s a humbled former MVP who says he was eating cereal during NFL games two weeks ago. Now he has one more chance, a chance he spent weeks praying he’d receive.
He arrived at the Carolina interview room Thursday wearing one of his signature hats and a gray T-shirt. It was a drawing of him screaming after that touchdown. It said “I’m back,” but the “I’m” was crossed out. In its place was the word “We.”
“I know I said I’m back,” Newton said as he smiled, “but we back.”