In 2015, at age 26, Cam Newton was on top of the football world.
In the offseason leading up to the 2015 season, Newton signed a five-year extension worth more than $103 million. It’s rare that you get an over-the-top payout on players who signed big second contracts, but in the following months, that’s exactly what Carolina got from their franchise signal-caller.
In the first season of his big deal, Newton threw for more than 3,800 passing yards with 35 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions—and also added an extra 636 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. Add all those up and it was the perfect recipe for an MVP trophy, the first of Newton’s career.
Beyond the personal accolades, Newton led the Panthers to a 15-1 record, the division title, the top seed in the NFC, and a Super Bowl berth, where they came up just short of a world championship.
It’s hard to imagine that here, just five years later, Newton would be on the open market well after free agency and the draft still looking for work.
There are a handful of legitimate factors that go into why Newton is still without a team right now, but there are also some that people believe are factors that just aren’t true. The first of those reasons start with the current situation in Carolina.
It was a struggle for the Panthers to get back to Super Bowl form following their 2015 loss in the season’s final game. The following year, Newton had the worst year of his career in terms of completion percentage, and his team finished 6-10 at the bottom of the division. The following year the Panthers did bounce back a bit. They finished the year 11-5 and earned a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, but they were ultimately bounced out in their first game. In the 2018 season, they finished 7-9, missing the postseason again. And in 2019, Newton played just two games due to injury, the Panthers finished the year 5-11 in his absence, and his long-time head coach Ron Rivera was fired.
But Rivera wasn’t the only cornerstone of old to go. Leader of the defense, Luke Kuechly, retired; the team also “moved on” from tight end Greg Olsen.
The team hired Matt Rhule to be their new head coach with Joe Brady and Phil Snow to be his offensive and defensive coordinators. All three of those hires were ones from the college ranks with no ties to the NFL or any first-hand experience with Newton’s abilities.
Carolina wanted to go in a new direction. When you do that, it is always better to do it with a clean sweep. Leave no room for going back and no hesitation moving forward. Eventually, every cornerstone of the Panthers’ 2015 Super Bowl regime was removed.
Even the one who everything was built around.
The Panthers wanted to start fresh. It’s hard to argue with them cutting Newton when you know that is the case. It wasn’t even anything Newton did or didn’t do. They just wanted a clean slate. That was their plan, and that is fine. But their plan does not mean it was Newton’s fault.
What opened the door for Carolina to tell themselves they could completely move on was the question of Newton’s health.
After the 2016 season where Newton threw for his career-low in completion percentage, Newton underwent surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. The following season was the one where the Panthers reached the postseason.
Then in 2018, the Panthers started out as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, going 6-2 in their first eight games. But in the second half of the season, everything started to unravel. The Panthers went on to lose seven straight games before winning the final game of the season.
Newton’s play during the first few games of that slide didn’t appear too out of the ordinary; they just weren’t winning. But in weeks 12-14, something did not seem right. Newton’s passing statistics and his play on the field were not what we were used to seeing from the former MVP. He was eventually shut down for the final two games of the season due to a shoulder injury.
In Newton’s own words in a “tell-all” YouTube blog, Newton said that his shoulder was something that was ailing him “for a long time.” That makes it sound like it was more than just the last two months of the season. After the season, Newton had surgery to repair his shoulder, a surgery he said was supposed to just be a quick fix where the recovery time was lower but knew he would likely have to have surgery again sometime down the road.
That surgery didn’t work, and Newton tells the story of how he had to have another surgery during that same offseason just to get things right. That put Newton’s timetable for action right around the preseason. Newton said himself in that video that everything, to that point, had been about his shoulder. He said his shoulder was feeling better, but then all of a sudden, in a preseason game against the New England Patriots, he took a wrong step during a scramble and felt a pain in his foot. As the game went on, he felt some discomfort, but he played through it.
Following that game, the final two weeks of the preseason were all about treatment on his foot to make sure he was ready for Week 1. He tried to downplay his injury (mainly to himself), saying that he would be fine. But when he went out onto the field for warmups (the moment he had been waiting for), he took a step and immediately had a thought.
“I can’t run.”
Newton didn’t know it at the time, but in that preseason game, he suffered a Lisfranc foot injury. With it, he was not able to move around—to really be Cam Newton, in a way—like he was used to. Newton played through the pain for Week 1, a loss to the Los Angeles Rams. After the game, in his own words, he tried to tell himself he would be fine, that he had to fight through it. Then, on a short week facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football, Newton’s performance and overall demeanor were so visibly different that after the game he had to face the fact that he was hurt. After not playing for a few weeks to see if it would get better, Newton was placed on IR.
To really understand this context, a context that is important for what we can expect out of Newton moving forward, we have to get into his mind, something he allowed us to do in his YouTube vlog.
Newton had heard all the criticism after the Super Bowl. He heard people tell him he would never win the big one, and after a below .500 season the following year, he heard people say that Newton’s MVP season was just luck. He fought back to prove them wrong in 2017 with their playoff berth. In 2018, he led the Panthers to a hot start, but an injury in the second half of the season was a catalyst for poor play once again. Again, the voices, the doubters, became loud.
Newton worked hard to make sure his shoulder would be good to go in 2019. He tirelessly rehabbed to make sure he was on that field again to prove people wrong. All of his focus was on his shoulder, so when he first injured his foot, he wouldn’t let himself believe it. He wouldn’t open the door for those people to have something to say again.
“This is where I got in my own way. [During the rehab during the preseason] I thought ‘I gotta play Week 1. I can’t let my fans down; I want to be there for my team… With that ‘Superman’ title and tag, you feel like, ‘Nah, coach, I’m good. I’m good. Let me play.’ But then deep down inside there’s that voice that you’re hearing. ‘You’re not as good as you think you are.”
By now, Newton’s shoulder should be as good as it can be after his two (really three) surgeries on it. As it pertains to that foot injury, Jordana Bieze Foster explained via a study that Lisfranc injuries don’t just heal after a few weeks like Newton tried to budget.
“Almost all National Football League (NFL) players who sustain tarsometatarsal (Lisfranc) joint injuries return to competition, but very few do so quickly, according to research from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
"Of 28 players (11 offensive, 17 defensive) who suffered Lisfranc injuries between 2000 and 2010, only two never returned to NFL competition. The median time to return was 11.1 months from the time of injury, and only three players returned in less than three months.
"Offensive power ratings (total touchdowns/6 + total yards/10) and defensive power ratings (total tackles + total sacks x2 + total interceptions x2) decreased slightly in the three seasons postinjury compared with the three seasons preinjury, but the decrease was not statistically significant. Similarly, the change in performance in the Lisfranc-injured players was greater than for a comparison group of players in similar positions from the 2005 season, but that difference was also not statistically significant.”
The good news is that now a year later Newton should be good to go. The problem was even when the Panthers were trying to trade Newton, the current social state of America in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic meant he couldn’t even get a physical by other teams. This left the trade market dry, and by the time the Panthers did release him, almost every starting job in the NFL was taken.
So that’s how we got here. Newton isn’t likely to take a backup job, even just for 2020. He might, but at this point, he’s likely waiting things out to see if a starting job opens up during training camp and the preseason. There’s no telling where that could be, but there is some telling of what a team could still get from the now 31-year-old former MVP.
Here we’re going to take a look at some throws from Newton’s lone healthy game from the 2019 season, Week 1 against the Los Angeles Rams. The reason why I’m choosing this game as opposed to film from previous seasons is because we want to know what we’re getting from Newton’s arm post-surgery. Even with a foot injury, we can see some of that.
In the play above, it’s clear that the arm strength is still there for Newton. The sideline throw is a great judge of ball velocity. It requires good timing, but also a cannon of an arm to get from the opposite hashmark to the farthest boundary on a rope.
There are two types of arm strength when it comes to quarterback play: distance and velocity. Even quarterbacks who have average to above-average arms can sometimes master their release and ball trajectory to hide their lack of arm strength by still getting the ball to a point down the field (albeit slowly).
You can’t hide velocity. You either have it or you don’t. Newton’s always had it, and he still does.
Newton also put his arm strength on display when it came to attacking the middle of the field, as shown above. He also showed how tall he can stand in the pocket.
Newton has always been a strong presence in the pocket. That 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame that makes him such a nightmare to tackle also comes to his aid when standing in the pocket.
In the play above, he took a shot when he released it, but the power he has allowed him to deliver that ball fast and on target.
Newton missed a couple of his deep passes in that game, but those were more from a lack of timing than a lack of control of his arm. We saw in shorter passes that required more strength that his arm was healed and was close to what we expect to see from one of the most elite arm talents in league history.
I don’t put too much weight on those touch passes because, remember, Newton was rehabbing that shoulder after his unexpected second surgery rather than getting normal reps in.
When it comes to quarterback play, the bigger the arm, the more accurate you have to be, because with a big arm can come big trouble if you can’t really control it. In the play above, though it wasn’t caught, Newton put that pass right on the money through multiple defenders. That, to me, is the sign that his arm will be fine moving forward.
For much of the last three seasons, Newton has been hurt. But he tried his best to be that Superman pre-game ritual in every sense of the title for everyone around him.
For the first time in his career, he won’t be a Panther in 2020. But I believe whatever team brings him can still get a playoff-caliber quarterback out of one of the most talented (albeit repaired) quarterbacks we’ve seen over the last decade.
- Aug 17, 2022
- Aug 17, 2022