By Jason Keidel
Cam Newton came into the NFL ready to play in the NFL, unlike many college football players who need time to adapt to pro football’s breakneck speed. Beyond his bulging frame, he had the legs and golden arm to shred the league as a rookie.
But after his exhilarating maiden season, Newton seemed to sink into a malaise. He slowly morphed into an emblem of the modern me-first player, an amalgam of ungodly gifts, epic ego and inflated sense of self-righteousness.
But it all came together last year. Few players have carried a football team the way Newton carried the Panthers’ dilapidated offense. His lone stud at wideout, Kelvin Benjamin, was injured before the season started, leaving him with very little to work with. Yet he still posted PlayStation numbers.
Whatever alchemy that blends body and brain seemed to click in perfect symmetry. Newton became a quarterback, if not man, in full. He lapped his counterparts with 10 rushing touchdowns and passed for another 35, to go along with 4,473 total yards. And he was marvelously efficient, tossing just 10 interceptions, while moonwalking to the NFL MVP award.
Along the way, he chafed a few foes with his ornate TD dances, making the end zone his personal runway. Each score spawned all sorts of spastic gestures, always punctuated by the infamous dab or the Superman salute, the pretend ripping open of his jersey to reveal the symbolic “S” on his chest.
Opposing teams were irked by the dance videos, yet they couldn’t keep Cam from scoring. At least until the Super Bowl, when the Broncos found a gridiron version of kryptonite. Von Miller almost singularly ransacked the Panthers in that game. Someone was bound to eventually; it’s part of the growing process for great players.
Newton morphed into a pouting preteen loser in the postgame presser, mumbling monosyllabic responses. Then he peeled himself from the chair and limped into the solemn locker room.
Newton plunged right back into the stereotype. Great body, not so great on the brains. It’s not that he lacks intelligence; it’s that his singular gifts are tethered to selfish goals. You never sensed that Cam Newton bought into the team ethic, at the expense of his gaudy, personal goals and inflated sense of self. While pro football is clearly entertainment, Newton seemed to embrace, if not live for, the entertainment over the accomplishment.
Despite earning a 15-1 mark last year and falling just four quarters short of a Super Bowl ring, the Panthers are not picked for a 2015 redux. Even with Benjamin back as a true, top wideout. Even with another year under coach Ron Rivera. Even with stellar running back Jonathan Stewart carrying the ball. Even with the potent shorthand between Newton and All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen. Even with their dubious division, the NFC South, which is hardly a hotbed of title contenders.
None of that matters. The Seahawks, Packers, ascendant Vikings… everyone else is getting the nod. The Panthers seem to be the latest flash in the pan.
The team can always play the respect card if they need blackboard fodder. It’s easy to rely on the “us against the world” mantra for inspiration.
But success will only come if Newton shows he’s grown up, beyond his next patented, TD dance craze, his ornate, rainbow wardrobe and reserves of charisma. No one who knows any football doubts his talent. At 6’6″, 265 pounds, Newton can run like a leopard and throw a football 70 yards without flinching. And he’s just played in a Super Bowl, which means he knows he can get there. But there is more than a symbolic difference between knowing you can reach the Super Bowl and knowing you can win it.
He’s shown himself to be a character. But winning quarterbacks also have character. Once Cam Newton understands the difference, it will take more than Von Miller to keep him from a Super Bowl title.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.