Cam Newton's 31st birthday is Monday, and he's still unlike any other QB in NFL history

The NFL is better with Cam Newton in it.

As we know, he’s not currently in the NFL and it has been a while since he has been a big factor in the league. Considering how Newton labored with a shoulder injury at the end of the 2018 season before he was shut down, and how he never looked right for his two games in 2019 before a foot injury ended his season, we haven’t seen prime Newton since at least Nov. of 2018. He’s an unsigned free agent, without any real opportunity to be a starter. There has been no team linked to Newton all offseason.

Newton turned 31 years old on Monday, yet he seems much older than that. Part of the reason is he was used unlike any other quarterback we’ve ever seen before. He had skills unlike any other quarterback we’ve seen before, either.

All of this is going to leave a very complicated legacy.

Cam Newton’s unusual football journey

Newton’s career has been unusual going back to college. No other player played a single season for a team and did more for the school than Newton did for Auburn. He went undefeated, won a Heisman Trophy and a national title, a few months later becoming the No. 1 pick of the NFL draft. But his college story can’t be told without mentioning he left Florida after stealing a laptop, and the reports of him being paid to come to Auburn. SEC fans still call him Scam Newton out of habit.

Then when Newton got to the NFL, he helped redefine the position of quarterback. He played quarterback in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Nothing about Newton really fits the traditional mold. He was a running quarterback but unlike running quarterbacks we have been used to, like Mike Vick, Steve Young or Lamar Jackson. Newton is listed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, and he seems much bigger. His best comparison as a runner might be Derrick Henry, who is 6-3, 247 pounds. Newton ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which is great for a quarterback but nothing compared to Vick or Jackson. He was a power back, the Panthers’ goal-line back many years, and Carolina used him as such. And they used him a lot.

There have been 29 instances of a quarterback reaching 100 rushing attempts in a season, and Newton has seven of them. He also has a 90-carry season, his low career mark not counting his two-game 2019 season. He has the most rushing touchdowns for a quarterback in NFL history, and many of them were in short-yardage situations. It’s no mystery why he turns 31 on Monday but it seems like he’s much older.

Newton also broke the norms as a passer too. He’s not the accurate pocket passer NFL teams covet, but it didn’t matter. He has a 59.6 completion percentage, and that’s generally not good enough in today’s NFL. Only four quarterbacks last season attempted 200 passes and didn’t complete 60 percent of them. Yet, the Panthers failed to finish in the top half of the NFL in either yards or points only once in Newton’s eight seasons as a full-time starter, and the Panthers went 12-4 and won the division that year (2013). The offense always moved with Newton leading it, and he generally posted good passing numbers.

We can’t evaluate Newton like anyone else, because he has played the game in his own way.

Former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) remains unsigned. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) remains unsigned. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

Newton is a controversial figure

Newton’s legacy would be even tougher to deny had the Panthers won Super Bowl 50. Carolina went 15-1 with Newton winning MVP, but lost to a great Denver Broncos defense in the Super Bowl. Newton could have been the second player to have a Heisman, national championship, regular-season MVP and Super Bowl championship in football history, joining Marcus Allen. Instead, we just dwell on him not diving for a fumble in that game.

Newton’s decline arguably started right after that, but it’s hard to forget how great he was with the Panthers.

Newton is divisive. His personality rubs some the wrong way, and those people generally ignore the long list of charity work he has done. Analytics-based critics generally don’t like him because he doesn’t check a lot of traditional boxes for successful NFL quarterbacks. It’s hard to quantify greatness for athletes who have a truly unique style.

This part is unique to Newton too: You won’t find a 31-year-old quarterback who has won an MVP searching for work in May. But questions about Newton’s health, the punishment he has taken and the inability for teams to have him work out and get a normal physical exam have played into his free agency wait.

Whether Newton takes a backup job or waits for a team that needs an emergency option in case of injuries, the NFL will be better when Newton is back in it. He’s still unlike anyone else who has ever played the position.

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