Cam Newton is among the most popular athletes in Charlotte and is unquestionably the most polarizing.
Some fans are mesmerized by what he can do. Others are hung up on what he can’t.
Newton’s detractors make more noise. There are fans of the Carolina Panthers who wake up looking for reasons to criticize the quarterback. They find them. “Saw Newton sitting on the bench, he had a white towel on his head and he did not appear to be talking to teammates. Therefore, he is evil.”
Newton made some nice plays Saturday in Carolina’s 14-point NFC divisional-round playoff loss at Seattle. He drove the offense downfield against extremely fast and smart defenders at a stadium full of noise.
He also mangled a handoff that led to a Seattle touchdown and threw two interceptions, the second of which was returned 90 yards for a touchdown. The fourth-quarter interception ended any hope the Panthers had to pull the upset. Their only hope was to make as few or fewer mistakes than their more-talented opponent.
Newton, 25, is tethered to the Panthers for one more season. But then what? Do they let him take his talents elsewhere? Or do they commit major money to retain him?
I don’t see a choice. The Panthers have several talented employees in the front office and locker room that they can replace if they have to. Newton is not one of them.
Offering him franchise quarterback money, $100 million, say, is a gamble.
Newton obviously has the physical gifts to meet franchise-quarterback requirements. But he’s more than an athlete. He improved markedly this season at working from the pocket and finding secondary receivers. He also emerged as a leader. You saw it during training camp. You saw it during the team’s six-game losing streak. His line was abysmal. Yet he never complained, gestured or whined. When he did criticize, he criticized his own work.
I’d take the gamble. I’d bet on Newton.
Will Newton bet on the Panthers?
Most of us are true to our traditions. Carolina’s tradition would have been to sign Newton after the 2013 season. It didn’t. This suggests uncertainty. But is that uncertainty the team’s or Team Newton’s?
No matter who plays quarterback, the Panthers have to upgrade their offense. They need at least one tackle and they might need two. You see Seattle’s line? Carolina had to blitz to get to Russell Wilson, and when it did the polished, 26-year-old quarterback thrived.
The Panthers also require a receiver. Philly Brown, a rookie, was not drafted, which perhaps is the reason so many seem to doubt him. The guy has big-time speed and good hands. Stick him in the slot and find a burner to complement Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin.
The Panthers also could devise a Newton-friendly offense, incorporating check-downs and timing routes. Give him more time to throw and more receivers to throw to and the possibilities are intriguing.
The Panthers can’t ask Newton for a hometown discount. He’s from Atlanta.
But we live in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world. If they ask nicely, maybe the Panthers can get a discount for Newton’s three turnovers in the last game anybody remembers.