The complex legacy of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, and how he changed the NFL

The complex legacy of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, and how he changed the NFL

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Brendan Marks//The Charlotte Observer) - Picture this:

Every day in Charlotte, your name reverberates across radio waves. It carries through electric wires, and the wind. Your face is plastered on every TV news show, your worth stamped out in tiny ink letters in the pages of this very publication. Everything from your shoes to your hair to the color of your shirt is scrutinized. Criticized. Questioned. And then once a week, the entire city gathers at your place. People put their judgments aside long enough to see if you’ll succeed or fail, waiting to issue their own verdict.

Jazz music and jerseys, Bud Lights and bellowing cheers. Or boos.

You snatched the attention of the nation’s largest sports league the first day you stepped on a field. Commanded a national spotlight your city never had before. You set records and earned the NFL’s highest individual honor.

Then you sprain an ankle. Fracture a rib. Break your back in a car crash. Tear your rotator cuff. Get concussed. Re-aggravate your shoulder, and go back under the knife.

Before you know it, you’re 30 and still searching for the only professional achievement you’ve ever wanted.

What’s your legacy?

THREE WISHES, FULFILLED

Before Cam Newton’s star turned, he knew how he wanted his future to unfold.

“He told me the first time I met him he wanted to win a national championship, wanted to be a top-10 draft pick, and he wanted to win the Heisman Trophy,” said Gus Malzahn, Auburn’s football coach. “That was exactly what he told me. Exactly what he said, and that’s the first time we met.

“I said, ‘If you allow me to coach you hard, you’ll have a chance to do all three.’ ”

Back then in 2009, Newton was still a top junior college recruit who fought to escape Tim Tebow’s shadow and his own troubled stay at Florida. Malzahn was Auburn’s offensive coordinator. Newton signed with the Tigers and quickly won the starting quarterback job. But Malzahn is a football coach, not a fortune teller. How could he have known what was in store?

Newton promptly turned the 2010 college football season into his own highlight reel. He’d pass for 245 yards and three touchdowns one week, then run for 200 and four scores the next. He even sprinkled in a receiving score against Ole Miss for good measure.

And Auburn kept winning.

The Tigers mowed through the SEC like thick grass. And then, they won the big one, a national championship over Oregon. Newton finished the season with 51 touchdowns — 30 passing, 20 rushing, and that one receiving — and earned the Heisman he’d set out to capture.

Only 14 players in NCAA history have recorded more touchdowns in one season than Newton.

“He willed our team to win the national championship that year,” Malzahn said. “Just in college, I don’t know if there’s ever been a player have a better year.”

‘YOU COULD SEE IT’

College is one thing. The NFL, as anyone who has spent even a second in the league will tell you, is a whole ‘nother monster.

Every defensive player is programmed to destroy the things quarterbacks are best at. To some extent, the NFL Draft process does that, too: Poking holes in your game and personality, sometimes just to test your demeanor.

The Carolina Panthers, by virtue of their league-worst 2-14 record in 2010, earned the top pick in the 2011 draft.

Ron Rivera, who the team signed that spring as head coach, inherited the No. 1 overall pick. Carolina keyed in on Newton early, recognizing his talent. But drafting Newton meant selecting something else, too. The boisterous young quarterback, in his one season at Auburn, made headlines pre-draft when he said he viewed himself as an “entertainer and icon.” (Newton was not available for comment for this story.)

Then there were the off-field questions about him, like a stolen laptop at Florida that ended his time with the Gators, and later reports that his father had shopped Newton around the SEC for the highest payday. When Newton ran onto the field against Alabama that season, the stadium played, “Take the Money and Run” as an homage.

Newton responded by leading the greatest comeback in Iron Bowl history.

“They asked a whole bunch of questions,” Malzahn said of the Panthers. “About work ethic and everything that goes with it, how he practiced — all those typical questions.”

NFL quarterbacks are supposed to lead, win games, be the face of their respective franchise. How did that square with Newton?

“We knew his personality,” Rivera said with a grin. “We knew that he had that iconic personality to begin with, especially after winning the Heisman. You get a taste of it, and he handled it very well when we first watched him ... You could see it.”

‘HE DID WHAT NO ROOKIE QUARTERBACK HAD EVER DONE’

Newton’s first season in the NFL looked a lot like his one year at Auburn.

He set records by throwing for more than 400 yards in his first two career games. He recorded a then-rookie record 4,051 passing yards, led the team with 14 rushing touchdowns and was named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011. The Panthers went just 6-10, but they had their franchise quarterback.

“He did what no rookie quarterback had ever done,” Rivera said. “What we did with him early on, the [zone-read] things our offense was doing with Rod Chudzinksi as the offensive coordinator, set some of the things in motion that you see today.”

Watching a dual-threat quarterback flourish in the NFL wasn’t a new concept — Steve Young wouldn’t have won a Super Bowl without using his legs the way he did — but the Newton-led Panthers were running college offensive concepts at a level the pro game had never before seen. And the league took notice.

In the following year’s draft, Robert Griffin III, another mobile quarterback with a Heisman on his résumé, was selected No. 2 overall and took the Redskins to the playoffs as a rookie. Then came Russell Wilson, who won a Super Bowl his second season. He was followed by Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, and more recently, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.

In the eight drafts since Newton was selected, 20 quarterbacks who fit the zone-read mold have been selected in the first three rounds. From 2000-2010? Only eight. The modern proliferation of mobile quarterbacks, of all sizes and success rates, began in earnest because of Newton.

“RG3 and all those guys that came on the tail end of Cam’s first couple years, we kind of brought a lot of those [rushing] concepts to this level,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “Obviously, a lot of people were doing it at the lower levels, but there was not really a guy who had been able to do it like Cam.

“He did it better than any quarterback in the history of the league.”

Teammate Luke Kuechly, a former Defensive Player of the Year, said what separates Newton from some of the other mobile quarterbacks is his proficiency in short-yardage situations.

“Obviously, Michael Vick and Vince Young and Randall Cunningham ran a lot,” Kuechly said. “But Cam’s just unique with his size. I think that’s probably his biggest differentiating factor. ... He’s got tons of red-zone touchdowns, inside the 5, he converts on third-and-short, fourth-and-short all the time.

“A lot of teams can scheme up to get their quarterback on the edge to run the ball, but I don’t think a lot of teams are doing what he’s doing in short yardage.”

THE CAM NEWTON EXPERIENCE

As Newton’s star on the field grew, accentuated by his 2015 MVP and the Panthers’ Super Bowl appearance, so did his presence off the field.

His wardrobe got zanier. New colorful suits after every game, custom hats from his personal milliner. Fox tails hanging from his pockets. Spiky loafers.

That attitude — such an outlier against the combat-like mentality of the league — seeped into the locker room. During that 2015 season, there were grandiose celebrations, impromptu sideline photo shoots with teammates.

Basically, there was pure joy in a place it wasn’t common.

“You talk about the impacts on the league, you go back and look at the impact we made during the 2015 season — we had fun,” Rivera said. “We would have loved to have won it — that would’ve been more fun — but we were having fun with it, and I think you see a little bit more of that now throughout the league with these ‘celebrations.’ ”

That stemmed from Newton. Even as his Superman chest routine and Sunday giveaways to kids in the end zone were picked apart by unhappy moms, he kept doing them.

Like when they first drafted him, the Panthers were going to get all of Cam Newton. For better, or worse.

Then when Carolina lost that Super Bowl, the Newton experience showed its full array.

During his postgame interview, Newton was curt. One-word answers, his black hoodie drooped over his face. No eye contact, no interest. Then he abruptly left midway through, creating an image of a sore loser. The New York Post called him immature and “selfish.” Kordell Stewart called him a diva. Deion Sanders said, as the face of the NFL, “you can’t do that” when you lose.

Subsequent walk-outs in the years to come have only cemented that reputation. And as Newton’s injuries have piled up, his play has slipped. More interceptions, fewer wins. A sinking completion percentage. All reasons to hide that trademark smile.

Since that Super Bowl loss, the Panthers have gone a pedestrian 24-24. Two losing seasons, no playoff wins. Newton has accounted for 65 passing touchdowns and 43 interceptions during that stretch, and his 15 rushing scores are almost overshadowed by 18 fumbles. Last year’s promising 6-2 start was derailed by a seven-game losing streak, as Newton’s surgically repaired throwing shoulder lost strength and mobility with each pass.

Whether Newton, who turned 30 on May 11, can ever get back to that 2015 form will decide not only the Panthers’ future, but also that of his coaches, front office executives and teammates.

It’s a legitimate concern, especially to Newton.

COMMUNITY IMPACT AND GIVING BACK

He said as much this spring, speaking to a group of students at Piedmont Middle School through his UN1TED AS 1 youth program.

“He explained to us how he’s afraid that he’s met his prime already,” said Letrell Grady, a 14-year-old former participant in Newton’s program. “That old Cam will not come back. That Super Bowl Cam won’t come back. But he deals with all that on his back, deals with his team and his children. He still maintains everything.”

But for all the uncertainty surrounding Newton’s football future, his impact in Charlotte is solid.

Through the Cam Newton Foundation, which sponsors the UN1TED AS 1 program and dozens of others throughout Charlotte and his hometown of Atlanta, Newton is able to give back to the community that accepted him. The foundation, director Kim Beal explained, essentially boils down to three buckets of community involvement: EVERY1 PLAYS (youth activity, mentoring high school players), EVERY1 GIVES (donations and community outreach) and EVERY1 LEARNS (diversity and societal education). Together, they make up the foundation’s guiding principle: EVERY1 MATTERS.

“Cam always tells this story when he was in Atlanta growing up: He didn’t have a famous athlete or celebrity coming to his school to say hello or give words of encouragement, so he does now,” Beal said. “He’s taking this opportunity to be a mentor and provide a positive impact where he can. I think that’s a big thing to him — he has a platform to affect change, and he wants to use it.”

Newton’s philanthropic efforts have made tangible and intangible changes to Charlotte. His two biggest annual events, Cam’s Thanksgiving Jam and Santa Cam’s Surprise Sleigh, work in conjunction with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina to provide meals and other goods to children and families in need.

This year, Second Harvest CEO Kay Carter said Cam’s Thanksgiving Jam fed more than 1,200 kids — not to mention the additional meals each child brought home to their families.

“Anytime anyone that is as well-known and as well-loved as a Cam Newton comes out and says, ‘It’s important to feed children,’ other people listen to that,” Carter said. “He has a tremendous number of fans. When he says the food bank is important to support and he has his picture on one of our trucks, it’s tremendously helpful. It keeps a lot of people in the community focused on that issue. So the fact that he supports us that way is honestly so important.”

The Cam Newton Foundation has spent or distributed more than $4 million through in-kind donations, financial contributions and programming in Charlotte and Atlanta, home to Newton’s longtime girlfriend and their three children. The foundation has also impacted more than 12,500 student-athletes through high school football development and mentoring.

What numbers can’t measure is the sort of life advice Newton has imparted to children like Letrell.

“Usually you think the average football player doesn’t really do that much for their community. They just care about themselves,” Letrell said. “But the fact that he made a whole program, fed me, hired people to help me, and he took time out of his day to fly to Charlotte to talk to me? When he didn’t have to do that? It wasn’t just a program with his name on it where he took credit. He took the time out of his day to come talk to me.

“Honestly and truly, I never would have expected Cam Newton to be like that. I’ve seen him on TV and social media and stuff like that, but I never thought he’d be that way.”

‘I DID IT MY WAY’

Now try to take all that in and then answer one lingering question: What is Cam Newton’s legacy?

Really, it’s threefold. He changed the NFL as one of the best athletes to ever play the quarterback position. Someone who revolutionized that role, some might say.

“He’s just a special player,” Malzahn said. “I just don’t know if the NFL had seen anything similar to him until he got there.”

There’s what he has meant to Charlotte, bringing national attention to a market that hasn’t always demanded it.

“Over the years, we’ve had a lot of really good players, but everyone knows what quarterback means,” Olsen said. “To have a quarterback that was different, that was playing the game different, had a different approach, had a different style as far as how they played, really raised the Panthers’ status and recognition throughout the league.”

Then there’s the community aspect.

But Cam Newton has sulked, he has pouted and he has thrown too many poor passes the last three seasons. His nagging shoulder injury cost him the end of 2018, and with just one year remaining on his contract, there are legitimate questions about his long-term future with the Panthers.

Newton’s legacy is a rose-colored fog. Perhaps that’s not such a raw deal.

He was brought to Charlotte to be the face of a franchise, to bring a major sports championship to a city that has never seen one. Not to smile, or conform. Not to answer questions.

He came here to win.

And he still can.

“If you ask him what he wants to be remembered for, he’ll say winning a Super Bowl. He’ll tell you that,” Rivera said. “To win the Super Bowl, that’s the legacy I expected [when we picked him]. I still do. I still think he’s capable. I still think we’re capable.

“I do think one of the interesting things about him is he understands the mantle that he has to carry. He understands how hard it is. And it’s tough on him. And he wants to do it his way. He wants to be who he is. He wants to keep his personality, and do it within the right framework, and he wants people to understand that. I think the things that he does shows people that he’s an individual.

“He’ll never be able to be Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning, and I think he knows that — but he doesn’t try to be. He tries to do it his way as Cam Newton, and that’s what I think he wants people to know. At the end of the day, he’s trying to stay true to what he believes in and who he is. And doing that I think has upset some people, because they want to know, why don’t you be this way? Why don’t you be that way?

“That’s just not who he is. That I think is part of his legacy. That’s why it’s so important to me personally that we win a Super Bowl — so he can say, ‘I did it my way.’ ”