Call it Operation Swag.
Cam Newton was not himself in 2016, and he knows it. What he’s trying to do in this Carolina Panthers training camp is return to the player and leader who was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player only two seasons ago.
“I’m just trying basically to get my swag back, get our swag back and just have fun,” Newton said Thursday.
There was not much fun to be had for the Panthers in 2016. Newton was hurt. His body – particularly his shoulder – was aching by the end of the season. His mind had a hard time comprehending that a Carolina team that went to the Super Bowl only a season earlier was going to wind up 6-10.
The quarterback sounded beaten up and beaten down on the last day of the 2016 season, in Tampa, Fla., when he said: “For me, I think me and football got a love-hate relationship. And we’re not on good terms right now. I’m just going to leave her alone for awhile.”
Since then, Newton has lost weight, had shoulder surgery on a partially torn rotator cuff and celebrated the birth of another child. In terms of football, the most important thing he has likely done is renewed a more full-fledged commitment to the game.
“I took last year personal,” said Newton, who reported to this camp weighing 246 pounds, which is 10-12 pounds less than he’s weighed during much of his career. “I took it extremely personal and I knew something had to change, starting with myself. ... I didn’t want to speak it, I wanted to action it. ... I had a lot of time in February so I figured I’d just keep the pedal down.”
What has resulted is Newton showing up in better shape than he was at the beginning of last season and, perhaps, better shape than he has ever been in before as a pro. He did it, he said, knowing that another season of double-digit losses will sully both his reputation and that of the Panthers.
“I just know for my career I can’t let that happen again – ever,” Newton said.
I just know for my career I can’t let that happen again – ever.
Cam Newton, on the Panthers’ 2016 season.
Newton hadn’t held a press conference in more than six months from that moment in Tampa when he talked about his love-hate relationship until Thursday, when he talked for 20 minutes in Spartanburg. When asked Thursday if 2016 had been “humbling” for him, Newton said: “Extremely. Extremely. But I’m not going to dwell on last year. I came to a crossroads with it, and that crossroads is in the past.”
The Panthers have tried to rebuild the offense around Newton – upgrading at left tackle with Matt Kalil and with team speed at every skill position. At 28, Newton should be smack in the middle of his prime – although he also knows he doesn’t heal as quickly as he used to.
Said Newton, almost nostalgically, about the way he used to recover from injury: “Young Cam would have been hurt, eaten some Gummy Bears, walked back into the room and I would have been good. Now a couple of kids in, man, you start feeling the little throbs.”
Now he must take conditioning more seriously, and he knows it. He has to balance that with a vibrant personality that means engaging in trash talk with linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly is on his to-do list every day at training camp. Even when he wasn’t throwing in the earlier minicamps because the Panthers were being careful with the shoulder he is nursing back to health, he was always talking.
“If they didn’t hear me then, they damn sure are going to hear me now,” Newton said of his defensive teammates. “Let’s just say that. I’m excited. I want my energy to be vibrant. I want people to see it. I want it to be contagious. … Gone are the days of ‘That’s not quarterback-like.’”
We have seen Newton’s way work, more often than not. And we have seen it flounder, especially when his offensive line unravels. He will change some this year, but certainly he’s not about to change everything. He said Thursday that expecting him to quarterback a team where he never got to run the ball would be like expecting a lion to never roar.
“That’s my edge,” Newton said.
The edge. The swag. The energy. The mojo.
Newton wants all of it back, and claims he will get it. He and football are on good terms once again, and that’s a good thing. Because while some things change around the Panthers every year, this one as not: The team, as usual, will go only as far as Cam can take them.