Cam Newton showed up at the podium after Sunday’s game the way he always does, looking like he’d been blown sideways through a high-end thrift store. Sporting an incongruous mix of shorts, a wide-brimmed and pearl-festooned hat, and — for some reason — a head scarf, Newton broke down Carolina’s three-point loss to the Rams with that curiously Newtonian combination of arrogance and acceptance.
Newton’s outfits have become one of the NFL’s weekly highlights, a constant marvel of improvisation far beyond the fashion grasp of most football fans. They’re also a brilliant sartorial sleight-of-hand; the more time you focus on what Newton’s wearing, the less you spend on how he’s throwing.
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Newton remains one of the NFL’s true prodigies, a unique combination of skills and mindset, but here’s the question he now faces: Can he hold off a league that’s catching up to him, and a calendar that’s grinding him down?
Playing healthy — or as healthy as he gets these days following shoulder surgery — for the first time since roughly the middle of last season, Newton struggled against the Rams. He didn’t throw a single touchdown and rushed for a career-low minus-2 yards. A backward pass led to a fumble which led straight to a Rams touchdown, and an interception with just under six minutes left in the game effectively killed off the Panthers’ chances to win. He didn’t have a pass for longer than 17 yards, and after the game he conceded that he was “a little rusty” and that he and the rest of the Panthers “weren’t connected to the same Wi-Fi.”
Nice metaphor. But perhaps most damning of the current state of Cam’s game was this quote from Rams linebacker Cory Littleton, who picked off that pass late in the game: "Cam is a readable guy. He gave me an opportunity and I read it perfectly."
The last thing any team wants to hear is that their quarterback is a readable guy.
Can Newton, Panthers bounce back from loss?
If there are positives to be taken from this game, it’s this: Newton didn’t win it for the Panthers, but he didn’t entirely throw Carolina out of it, either. Losing to the defending NFC champions isn’t a mortal sin, and Newton — at least in his telling — played without pain in his shoulder.
“That’s what I’m most optimistic about and happy about, not needing to gauge the [long] throw,” he said after the game. “My body feels fine. Whatever play is called, I feel confident. I didn’t think about my shoulder.”
So Newton is back. But what does that mean for Carolina and its playoff chances?
Nobody’s picking Carolina to run the table in the NFC; those days of 2015 are long past. But Christian McCaffrey gives the offense another dimension besides “throw Cam at ‘em,” and that in turn gives Carolina a shot at a wild card.
Regardless of how well McCaffrey and the Luke Kuechly-led defense play, the team revolves around Newton. He has always been a guy who keeps the “me” in “team,” whether through his outfits, his strange-font Instagram posts, or his self-conscious touchdown celebrations. All that was fine when Carolina was tearing through the league; it doesn’t play so well when the team struggles to hit .500.
Plus, the Newton style of ball, hammering away at the defense with both passes and shoulders until it breaks, is as dated as a guitar solo now. Newton has only so many hits left in him, but Carolina’s default seems to be, when all else fails, turn Newton loose. After that MVP season of 2015, when he averaged 39.8 yards rushing a game and tallied 132 total carries on the ground, the Panthers coaching staff dialed him way back, holding him to only 23.9 yards per game on 42 fewer carries in 2016. The next year? Back up to 47.1 on 139 carries, and then 34.9 in 2018.
What does the future hold for Newton, Carolina?
Newton will be an unrestricted free agent after next season, and in a perfect world he’d be in line for a Matt Ryan-style Last Big Contract. But Newton’s world is far from perfect, and he has put a lot more miles on his tires than Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford or other QB comps had at this point in their careers. At this point, it’s almost impossible to envision anything other than a long-term Carolina extension in Newton’s future … but what if he can’t shake the injury woes? What if he has lost too many miles off his fastball? You can ask those questions of any quarterback, of course, but Newton’s a unique quarterback with unique questions.
Newton came the closest the NFL has ever seen to being the total quarterback package back in 2015 — a sledgehammer runner with a rocket-launcher arm and a chess grandmaster’s strategic analysis. But that season seems a long, long time ago now, and with the ascendance of younger quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott, Newton is fading into classic-rock territory.
Five of the Panthers’ next six games come against likely bottom-feeders: Arizona, Tampa Bay (twice), San Francisco and Jacksonville. Anything less than a 4-1 record out of that slate, and Panthers fans ought to start getting nervous.
Carolina’s going to find out soon if what Cam Newton is today, is anything close to what Cam Newton was then. The next few years of this franchise will ride on the answer.
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