Over the past 15 months, Carolina Panthers fans have been forced to say their goodbyes to six of the top ten all-time leaders for games started in franchise history.
The Hall of Fame pass rusher, the prototype linebacker, the heart and soul of the team, the captain of the offensive line, and the ever reliable tight end have all departed in their own ways. But none feel as significant as the sudden and, once again mishandled, exit of the greatest showman to ever call the Carolinas home.
Cam Newton today wears the scars of years of battle, his infectious energy no longer limitless – to see Cam light up with the beaming smile that once breathed swag into a staggered populous searching for their own identity, you have to catch a glimpse of him interacting with children, always his specialty. When he’s not working out, his social media is filled with moments of the warrior not at battle, but at home with his children. Now, he feels slighted, his words manipulated by the very organization for whom he’s given his body and majority of his professional career.
Before Cam even set foot in Carolina, he was a divisive figure, often held up in direct contrast to the media’s anointed crown prince who he played briefly with at Florida. Cam took over college football in 2010 with a physical dominance seldom seen. Culminating in a three-game winning streak, he led a roaring second half comeback in the Iron Bowl, a blowout SEC Championship victory, a runaway Heisman trophy vote and ultimately, a national title.
Still, Cam was projected by many as a project quarterback worthy of a pick in the late first or second round.
His mechanics, mental makeup, and even his ‘fake smile’ were all questioned. Panthers fans were blissfully unaware of these conversations, their hearts already set on another, until the most sure fire thing at QB in a generation decided to return to school for his senior season. Suddenly, Panthers fans found themselves searching for a defensive centerpiece or talking themselves into a quarterback who didn’t much resemble their pre-ordained match. For the Panthers themselves, a year after selecting the most pro-ready quarterback in the draft, they found themselves with the first overall pick and a decision to make.
Well into the rushed pre-season of Cam’s rookie year, fans and local talking heads were wondering aloud, “Can Cam Throw?” Defensive Coordinators were similarly skeptical. Cam responded with an easy heave down the left side to Steve Smith on his way to posting the NFL record for most passing yards in a debut (422). The following week, against another skeptical defense, he threw for even more: 432 yards.
By Week 7 of his rookie season, his Superman celebration was well established enough to be mocked by a veteran Washington linebacker, but it was during that same game that at a coach’s suggestion, he handed a football to a young fan in the stands following a touchdown. It was a gesture so out of the norm that the local newspaper tracked down the children who received the ball.
At first there were critics, and even teammates with hurt feelings, but over time the practice became refined and a tradition was born. That week, Cam delivered beautiful deep balls to multiple receivers and dazzled with a 14-second, 25-yard scramble to convert a third down on his way to a victory and his teammates celebrated as he was awarded the game ball in the locker room.
It was the middle of November in Cam’s rookie campaign, after a stunning 30-3 defeat, when Panther fans were openly wondering if Cam Newton’s magic had been solved by the employment of a particularly successful QB spy by the Titans. Cam and the offense would respond by averaging 33 points while going 4-2 over the next six weeks. During which, the best player in the NBA and his future Hall of Fame teammate taunted Cam as he sat courtside, with Cam’s own Superman celebration after a game-winning basket against the Bobcats. Cam would finish the season with the NFL record for rookie passing yards, a Pro Bowl appearance, and was named the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Cam would become the first and only player in NFL history to have 50+ passing touchdowns and 25+ rushing touchdowns in a three-year span. In his first two seasons, we saw Cam at his running best, transforming from ballerina to bulldozer and back again – not within one drive, but within one scramble, only to straighten up and deliver a downfield dagger while continuing to roll away from frustrated defenders.
2013 would the mark the first taste of success for this crop of Panthers.
The team would lose three of the first four, but by Week 16 found themselves hosting New Orleans with the NFC South on the line and one of the most iconic defensive performances in Panthers history appearing like it may have been in vain. With just 55 seconds left in the game and a playoff berth in the balance, the heavy rains had subsided and Carolina’s offense took over at their own 35-yard line trailing by three. Cam took the snap, stepped up in the pocket, waiting for what felt like eternity before uncorking a laser to his speedster receiver over the middle of the field to put the team in field goal position. Two plays later, Cam dismissed a blitzer, found a sliding wide receiver in the end zone and Bank of America Stadium erupted.
“It hasn’t been this loud in this stadium in a long time,” streamed through the broadcast.
Cam had injured his ankle during the regular season and despite efforts to keep it quiet, Cam’s lack of mobility became apparent as the season wore on. After a frustrating playoff loss against San Francisco, surgery for the injured ankle lay ahead. Instead of building on the success of the previous year, 2014 felt cursed for the Panthers. The explosive departure of the face of the franchise and off-field drama loomed over the early part of the season, while the coaching staff tried to reduce Cam’s role in the running game as he returned from his injury.
Through Week 5 of the season, Cam had rushed for just 42 total yards.
With a daunting schedule ahead, the Panthers found themselves in Cincinnati down 17-10 at halftime and the offense lacking spark. In the second half, Cam was unleashed, finishing with 107 rushing yards on 17 carries, with 15 of the carries and 101 yards coming after halftime. For the second time in Cam’s career (and the second time in NFL history), a quarterback would post 275+ passing yards with 100+ rushing yards in a single game. Cam has achieved the feat three times, going 2-0-1. Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are the only other quarterbacks in NFL history to have one 275+/100+ games (combined record: 0-2).
The Panthers would flounder throughout most of the season, but come December found themselves in the mix for the NFC South. Cam responded with three touchdown passes and his second highest rushing total of the season in a blowout victory against the Saints in the Superdome.
Two days later, Cam Newton’s driver side would be struck in a two-car accident at a dangerous intersection less than a mile from Bank of America stadium. Almost exactly five months after Cam returned from ankle surgery, he suffered two transverse process fractures in his lower back and Panther fans feared the worst, both for the season and for the their QB’s career.
Cam missed just one game.
Less than three weeks after Newton’s accident, after another blowout win, this time against Atlanta, the Panthers would become the first back-to-back NFC South Champions in division history. The team would record their first playoff win since 2005 before falling in Seattle.
Panthers fans spent the off-season optimistic about their QB being healthy once again, but during training camp, one of the team’s two 1,000 yard pass catchers from the year prior went down with a torn ACL. In one of the toughest divisions in football and with a murderous schedule, many critics were not optimistic about the Panthers chances.
What unfolded was the single greatest professional sports run that either of the Carolinas have ever seen.
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers blew teams out. Even when Panther fans tell it, the season started slow for the offense, but it was just the second game when Cam scored a flipping touchdown so incredible that he made the Panther’s Spanish announce team famous. The Panthers were 4-0 heading into their bye week, but on the other side lay a trip to visit the two-time defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks, to whom the Panthers had lost five straight and seven of the last eight.
The Panthers would find themselves down nine midway through the fourth quarter, down three with 2:20 to go when the offense took the field for the final time.
Against the Legion of Boom, Cam completed his last 11 passes, to seven different receivers, culminating in a 26-yard touchdown strike to Greg Olsen that set off an audibly raucous team celebration for the visitors in the suddenly silent stadium. 5-0. Cam would struggle through a primetime victory against the Eagles, setting up another primetime faceoff, this time against the Chosen One and the Indianapolis Colts. The Panthers would need overtime, but improved to 7-0. The Green Bay Packers lay in wait, but the Panthers pounced first, notching 37 points in just more than 3 quarters of action. 8-0.
After getting through the daunting four game stretch unscathed, Cam used chest puffs, pelvic thrusts, and arrogant struts to upset seemingly everyone in Tennessee. 9-0. The following Sunday, the Panthers dismantled the Redskins 44-16, with Cam setting a Panther record with five passing touchdowns and numerous penalties drawn by his hard counts. 10-0.
Thanksgiving in Dallas, donning the all blue uniforms, belonged to the defense, right from the start. 11-0. A week later in the Superdome, however, Cam and the offense would need to respond to two 4th quarter touchdown drives from the Saints. Cam’s first response was by going over the top with a quick five-play drive, with a combined 77 yards coming on two pass plays. The second time, the Saints focused on taking the deep ball away and Cam picked them apart with short and intermediate throws.
21 first quarter points, with touchdown passes of 46 and 74 yards and the Panthers easily disposed of the Falcons. 13-0. After piling up 35 points in two and half quarters against the Giants, New York would rally in the fourth quarter to tie the game. On a day when Cam Newton became the first and only NFL quarterback to win a game passing for more than 300 yards and rushing for 100, somehow the lasting image is of him standing stoically on the sideline with less than two minutes to go in the game, watching the Giants diva wide receiver mocking his celebration, then confidently nodding. 14-0.
The undefeated run would end, but the fun was not over.
Ten Panthers made the Pro Bowl. The team clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs, enjoying a bye week before welcoming a familiar foe to Bank of America Stadium. Despite the Panthers win in Seattle earlier in the year, the Seahawks were still viewed by many as the class of the NFC. The Panthers led 31-0 at halftime. While the Seahawks had become the Panthers recent nemesis, in 2008, the Cardinals authored arguably the worst home defeat in Panthers history. In 2015, those demons were exorcized in a three-hour cathartic coronation ceremony as the Panthers scored 17 first quarter points on their way to a 49-15 rout, punching their ticket for the Super Bowl.
Cam would be named First Team All-Pro, MVP, and was voted the best player in the NFL heading into 2016, but that season never got on track.
Cam and the Panthers would return to the playoffs in 2017, with Cam leading the team in rushing yards for the season, but their run would not see past Wildcard Weekend. During a Week 15 win over Green Bay, with the Panthers in the red zone, Cam pointed at a Pro Bowl linebacker and declared, “Oh you’ve been watching film, huh? That’s cool. Watch This.” seconds before throwing a touchdown pass.
The first half of 2018 saw Cam playing as close to his 2015 level as we’d since the MVP season. He was in command in the pocket, while still leading all QBs in rushing yards. His comeback in Philadelphia was legendary. His performance in Week 8 against a Baltimore team boasting the #1 defense in the league was surgical, even if he had to be pulled before halftime, unable to throw the Hail Mary.
Unfortunately, since that Sunday, all surgeries have been performed on Cam himself and not defenses.
Cam Newton leaves Carolina as the team’s all-time passing leader in yards and touchdowns, and as the team’s third-leading rusher. No quarterback in the history of the game has more wins where they accounted for both a passing and rushing TD than Cam. He wasn’t just one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks football has ever seen, he was also an entertainer – with a megawatt smile that pulled fans in from far and wide and a charitable soul who always looked to inspire and help children in the community.
From pre-game cleats to end zone dives, celebration dances and giveaways, to playoff wins and feats the game has never seen, no one has put on a better show longer than Cam in the Carolinas. Now, Superman needs a new Metropolis and the Panthers will try to fill the biggest hole any player has left in a generation.
We’ll see if the self-described lion can roar once more. If he does, watch out.