Entering the early winter of 2009, the Seattle Mariners were a disaster. Not in the sense of record (though going 61-101 the previous year didn’t help), but the locker room was in disarray. From reports of the general manager holding players captive after the game for accountability to just plain up not liking one another, this was a baseball team that did not learn to love one another.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Panthers but stick with me, there’s a connection.
The Mariners responded by bringing back legendary center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. Nearing his 40th birthday, it was obvious he was not the same Hall of Fame game changer that elevated Seattle baseball in the 90s’ but, ultimately, he played a major role in turning around Seattle’s locker room for the better. Of course, the Mariners still have not ended their 20-season playoff drought, but the players were happy.
Doesn’t that sound just a little bit familiar?
Now it’s 2021 and behold, the Carolina Panthers. Tensions are brewing. Robby Anderson isn’t getting targets and reportedly isn’t getting along with Sam Darnold, the coach is calling out a defense in the top three in yards per play, and the team is free-falling from a 3-0 start into the deep fiery hells of mediocrity.
Enter Cam Newton.
From the beginning of the Panthers’ attempts to play father and son catch with the Cardinals, something about that offense looked different, even in Newton’s limited snaps. The players looked hungrier, more inspired, almost as if some sort of positive energy inflicted them. On each of his first two touches Newton scored touchdowns. Nothing made sense. It didn’t need to.
For the first time in a while, the Carolina Panthers enjoyed themselves. Personality wise, this was closer to resembling the heights of the dab-crazed phenomenon surrounding the team’s memorable 2015 season than it did the majority of this bleak 2021 campaign. Despite the fallout following the 2019 season, mentally this team found themselves.
That was going to lend its way to a phenomenal homecoming party the following week in Charlotte, where Newton was returning home to face off against a couple of old friends in Ron Rivera and Taylor Heinicke.
The end result, a 27-21 Washington victory, clearly was not what Panthers fans wanted. I know many still feel bitter about how that ended, how disappointed they were that their most valuable player in franchise history could not get a chance to write a storybook ending to a great day.
Panthers fans can think how they want, they’ve rooted for and studied this team far longer than I have. Personally, I think having these bitter feelings misses the point. Cam Newton is back, and this gives fans a reason to stick with this team, regardless of if they compete for the playoffs or not. The team’s first legitimate superstar quarterback continues to use his unique blend of dual threat wizardry to elevate those around him and make any game a contest worth watching, making him beloved not just by generations of Charlotte natives, but a sea of NFL fans as well.
In each of his first two games back, Newton brought at least one passing and one rushing touchdown to the table, increasing his career total of such games to 45, an NFL record (Steve Young is next up with 38). A beautiful opening drive against Washington culminated with a passing touchdown to D.J. Moore, after he took his first snap against the Cardinals into the endzone. This sounds more like the script to a cheesy 90s’ kids movie than reality, but somehow it wasn’t.
Despite how dedicated his critics are to moving the goalposts, Cam Newton’s on field foes have nothing but respect for this 32-year-old veteran and the touchdown pass to DJ Moore mentioned above is a great example of this. No. 26 on Washington is so concerned with Cam’s rushing ability that he leaves D.J. Moore one on one with the outside corner in fears of the quarterback rushing up the middle on the supposed draw.
This is something you don’t get from guys like Sam Darnold or Teddy Bridgewater. This level of respect, ironically enough, reveals cracks in Washington’s defense.
Newton really is one of the most complete players at any position the NFL has ever seen. Not just an awesome runner, but an elite passer as well. When it comes to throwing into tight windows, his level of anticipation during the good old days rivaled the best of the best, and he was doing so with receiving corps many saw as lackluster.
As this throw to Christian McCaffrey on a go route shows, Newton’s magic well hasn’t run dry. McCaffrey is not open until he’s thrown open. This ability to create open receivers with his anticipation and accuracy continues to separate him from many of his peers.
Taking a look at the MIKE (No. 55), Newton recognizes that his movement is pulling him away from McCaffrey’s go route and that CMC already has the SAM (No. 26) beat. Thus, he’s able to step up the pocket, time his pass, and thread this through everybody. If you want to further advance your team’s chances of winning, you need a quarterback that can create when nothing appears to be open. That’s what Newton did for years in Charlotte, that’s what he did on this play.
Even with the limited amount of time spent together, Joe Brady seems to understand what makes Cam Newton Cam Newton, calling up QB draws and option plays to put his guy into positions to succeed. In his prime, No. 1 had game changing elusiveness and speed in the open field combined with the Herculean strength needed to break tackles. This among other things, made him the ultimate red zone weapon during the 2010s, an absolute God in the area.
This is no red zone rep, yet it still showcases Cam’s trademark speed and tackle breaking ability.
As he’s able to recognize that Washington is loading up the box, he pulls the ball away and breaks away with the H-back clearing some outside space for him. From there it’s all Cam as he cruises to the end zone for another score.
The Panthers are still alive in the play-off hunt, just, and Cam being back certainly improves their chances in that regard, but even if the Panthers stumble to a 5-12 finish and decide to move on from Cam once again, this experiment is still worthwhile. One last mini season with Cam Newton, with at least six more games to go, are something to treasure for Panthers fans. What seemed like a pipe dream in early September has not just materialised but, with five touchdowns in one-and-a-bit games, actually worked out.
Wins and losses are very important for a fan base’s enthusiasm, this goes without saying, but they can also limit our appreciation and blind us from what’s right there, and what’s right there is Cam Newton, an icon on the field and in the local community. Newton has brought swagger and confidence wherever he walked, and I have no doubt that he’ll do the same with the time he has in Charlotte for round two.
Is Cam Newton the same caliber player he was during his prime in the 2010s? Probably not, but for the short term let’s stick around and have some fun. He could or could not be around when the 2022 season starts, and for me, every snap he plays will be treated like his very last.
Top photo via Angela Denogean/Carolina Panthers