Can Cam Newton be Superman again?

By Ben Shpigel

Third-and-10 is traditionally a passing situation, but just outside the red zone on that down, Cam Newton took the shotgun snap, glanced left, tucked the ball and charged forward. Evading a thicket of bodies, he cut right and accelerated toward the sideline.

Even then, five years into Newton’s career, defenders seemed confounded that someone that big — 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds — could also be that fast. He outraced one defender, then shoved another, jolting him 5 yards with a hellacious stiff arm, to gain the first down.

Jumping up, Newton spiked the ball and flexed. On the next play, after shedding a tackle, he raced 12 yards into the end zone, somersaulting over his center, for the second of his four touchdowns in the Carolina Panthers’ NFC championship game rout of the Arizona Cardinals in January 2016. He did his “Superman” celebration and then dabbed, performing the head-to-bent-elbow dance move as the home crowd at Bank of America Stadium roared.

In that dominant season of dominant victories and dominant displays — he would, two weeks later, be selected as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player — Newton’s personality and performance catapulted him into a niche of celebrity culture, as the rare football superstar with crossover appeal.

“I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon,” he said before he was drafted in 2011. He had, unabashedly, done just that.

In a league where teams pay millions of dollars for even average quarterback play, what has happened to Newton this offseason would have seemed incomprehensible in 2015. With a new coach and after gutting the roster, the Panthers released Newton in March, having decided he no longer fit into their plans.

His career since that MVP season has been marred by injury and postseason disappointment. In his absence from the limelight, the NFL has churned on, and a cadre of thrilling young quarterbacks has reached full bloom. But it was Newton who helped create the paradigm for the stars currently holding the league rapt; Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson don’t have to fight their organizations or commentators to boldly play the way they do, in part because Newton already did.

Newton spent three months unemployed as the coronavirus pandemic prevented teams from gauging his health before the New England Patriots signed him to a one-year contract reportedly laden with performance incentives. In less than a month, Newton, 31, who is two years removed from his last healthy season, will arrive at the Patriots’ training camp seeking to answer for himself the same question wondered by a vast legion of football fans: Can he be Superman again?

Flipping the Script

When Carolina drafted Newton No. 1 overall in 2011, he vaulted the franchise from two-win irrelevance the season before into the national consciousness.

In his debut, he passed for 422 yards and accounted for three touchdowns. The next week, he threw for 432 and rushed for 53 more. The Panthers lost both games, but it almost did not matter. They had Newton, and no one else did.

He primped. He preened. He moped. He pointed after first downs. He barreled into defenders. He ran and threw for lots of yards and scored lots of touchdowns and had lots of fun, charming some fans and irritating others with his demonstrative personality. Categorized as a mobile quarterback or a dual threat — descriptions, rooted in racial stereotypes, suggesting he doesn’t throw as well as he runs — Newton abhorred labels. He played the position how he wanted to, how he knew he could.

“Cam was like, ‘I’m bringing my full self here,’” said Louis Moore, author of “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest for Equality” and an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University.

“I think it opened up everything for others to follow — the way he dressed, the way he talked, the way he moved,” Moore said. “We hadn’t really seen any of that. The quarterback’s always been told that he has to act a certain way, this kind of professional level — you can’t be a diva wide receiver — and Cam flipped the script: ‘No, I’m going to be who I want to be.’ And plus, he was really, really good.”

A Top Tactician

Considering all that Newton could do on the field, he seemed at times burdened with offsetting Carolina’s roster imperfections, from its modest offensive line to its meager cast of receivers. The Panthers won three consecutive NFC South titles, culminating with that 2015 season that ended with a loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.

Just as he was thriving, though, another set of shoulder troubles surfaced. After having surgery for a torn rotator cuff after the 2016 season, Newton underwent another procedure on the same shoulder in January 2019, eight months after David Tepper bought the team.

Mended by training camp that year, he then injured the Lisfranc ligament in his left foot during a preseason game, an injury that impeded his mobility and follow-through.

In his final game with Carolina, a Week 2 home defeat to Tampa Bay, Newton completed 49 percent of his passes, and in decisive proof of his limitations, he didn’t run the ball on either of the Panthers’ fourth-and-1 situations in the fourth quarter.

‘It’s About Respect’

Newton’s free agency this spring followed his peers’, as Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Teddy Bridgewater, who landed with Carolina, all signed contracts that could pay them over $20 million per year. Newton became available on March 24 — when travel restrictions wrought by the pandemic blocked teams from examining him — and lingered on the open market past April’s draft, as viable starting options evaporated.

Whether the depressed demand was an absurdity, given his stature, or entirely reasonable, given the general uncertainty about his health, was not clear. If not for the pandemic, one NFL agent said, the market for Newton would have been robust.

“But you have to pay a player for what they’re going to be in the NFL, not for what they’ve done,” said the agent, who requested anonymity to speak freely about a player he does not represent. “And you don’t know what he’s going to do.”

Newton has not had to prove himself to such an extent since 2009, when he attended Blinn College to regain NCAA eligibility after flaming out at Florida. He arrived at the campus in Brenham, Texas, without a car or a starting role but parlayed that stopover into an enchanted season at Auburn, where he won the Heisman Trophy and the national championship.

New England, in many respects, offers a similar springboard for Newton, who will play the marquee position for the most successful NFL franchise of the past 25 years. It is a chance to reclaim his primacy and visibility while also making a social statement of sorts, as a high-profile Black quarterback alighting in Boston, a city that has a reputation for being inhospitable to Black people.

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