It took less than three days for the Carolina Panthers to come up with a plan to get Cam Newton involved in their offense once again. As it turned out, that was plenty of time.
Though he was on the field for just nine snaps on Sunday, Newton quickly made a statement in his first regular-season football action in 2021. On his first snap back with the team that had drafted him first overall in 2011, he scored a rushing touchdown. It was an announcement with his legs and then his voice: he’s back.
On his very next offensive snap –– less than three minutes later and starting at the exact same spot on the field—he threw a passing touchdown.
Though Newton’s presence wasn’t as strong a factor on the field for the rest of the game, his overall numbers were impressive in an admittedly low sample size. He finished 3-of-4 passing for eight yards and a touchdown, with 14 more yards and a touchdown on three rush attempts.
The Panthers’ utilization of the return of their Superman looks just like the San Francisco 49ers’ game plan with Trey Lance earlier this season. They’re giving Newton time to settle in and learn a new offense from a new (to him) Carolina coaching staff before becoming their full-time starter. But that didn’t mean keeping him completely out of games until he was fully ready. Instead, Newton came in during goal-line opportunities to exploit his athleticism by creating mismatches with the Cardinals’ defense.
Original Carolina backup P.J. Walker led the offense down the field for most of the game, putting up a serviceable 167 yards while going 22-of-29 passing, including an interception. With Walker playing well and limiting mistakes, finding spots for Newton to play a role was easy for head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady. The former Patriot quarterback had been able to learn a simple package in just a few days with some basic plays that he could learn and execute easily as a veteran: designed runs, a sprint out, an option, and some quick passes.
Even in such limited action, Newton’s return to the Panthers seems to have completely reinvigorated the team. They blew out the Cardinals, who were one play of A.J. Green facing the right direction away from entering Sunday undefeated. Arizona was missing Kyler Murray and De’Andre Hopkins, sure, but the Panthers hadn’t scored more than 30 points all season before Sunday. To further emphasize this point, running back Christian McCaffrey had a vintage performance too with his 161 all-purpose yards on 23 touches. The offensive line also suddenly looked much improved, leading the way for Carolina’s 166 rushing yards while also allowing zero sacks.
The Panthers looked like they were having fun for the first time in a while with Newton’s return. That isn’t too surprising, considering what they had been working with earlier this season. Sam Darnold wasn’t, isn’t, and never will be the answer for them under center. If it hadn’t been clear in the early weeks of the season, then his performances over his previous two games made that incredibly obvious. Seeing Newton on the sideline, coaching up his teammates like a team captain just three full days after rejoining the Panthers just looked and felt right.
All signs now point to Newton taking over as the starter for Week 11 and beyond. The Panthers paid him starter money—a one-year deal worth up to $10 million—when they signed him, and he’s been taking first-team reps in practice so far this week. Though he may need a week or two to get fully acquainted with the offense, his return to starter action will be fascinating to watch. We’ll get a sense of what to expect from Newton and the Panthers in the season’s back half, and he’ll be returning home to Charlotte against the Washington Football Team and his former head coach, Ron Rivera.
Newton’s second stint is off to a great start. If it’s an indicator of what’s to come, Carolina—who already finds itself inside the playoff bubble as the NFC’s seventh seed—could very well cement their first playoff berth since 2017.