Scott Fowler

Happy 28th birthday, Cam Newton. History says it should be a special year.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, shown celebrating a touchdown by running back Jonathan Stewart in 2016, turns 28 Thursday.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, shown celebrating a touchdown by running back Jonathan Stewart in 2016, turns 28 Thursday.

At age 28, it’s time to be great.

That’s the age Cam Newton turns on Thursday. The Carolina Panthers quarterback has officially hit his late 20s now, which is prime time for many athletes and other notables who had the greatness gene within them.

Joe Montana won the Super Bowl at age 28. Michael Jordan was in the middle of an NBA season that would ultimately net him both a second NBA championship and the league MVP at age 28. Mark Zuckerberg took Facebook public and immediately became worth more than $20 billion at age 28.

At age 28, for most of the great ones, you are still young enough that none of your prodigious gifts have been eroded by the harshness of time. Yet you are old enough to have had the “I’m Just Glad To Be Here” part of your career wiped away, replaced by laser focus and enviable endurance. For many, it is one of those perfect years of life – old enough to be able to do whatever you want, young enough to do it about as well as you probably ever will.

Wayne Gretzky took sole ownership of the NHL’s all-time career points record at age 28. Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist, revolutionized science by publishing his theory of the atom at age 28. Ralph Lauren came up with “Polo” and began selling men’s neckties under that brand name at age 28. Alexander Graham Bell was in the process of inventing the telephone at age 28. Dale Earnhardt was tearing it up in his first full-time Cup season at age 28.

Newton has also already done some great things within his profession already in his first six years in Charlotte. He was the first Panther to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, which happened following his terrific 2015 season. He got the Panthers to the playoffs three seasons in a row and to the Super Bowl once in the period from 2013-15. Before all that, he won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship and Auburn and became the No.1 overall draft pick of the 2011 NFL draft.

But what Newton has not done – and what he must still do to cement his NFL legacy – is win a Super Bowl.

That’s what is lacking right now for Newton. No matter how many touchdown balls he gives away, no matter how many visits to a millinery that he makes, no matter how many times he makes his first-down signal or tells us that “hindsight is 50-50” or flashes that dazzling smile, there is one thing missing.

A Super Bowl ring.

Newton knows this. The number of championships won is the top line on the résumé for every quarterback who wants to one day be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I covered Dan Marino for several years in the early 1990s when I worked for the Miami Herald. Marino was a much different sort of quarterback than Newton, but he was also special. He set all sorts of career passing records. Yet invariably if you are talking about Marino to someone, in the first two minutes the phrase “Yeah, but he didn’t win a Super Bowl” comes up.

Like Marino, Newton won a league MVP award and led his team to a Super Bowl – but lost it – early in his career. The Dolphins wasted a lot of Marino’s best years by fielding a threadbare defense and never giving him the sort of Pro Bowl running back he could have used to take the pressure off from having to single-handedly come up with one fourth-quarter comeback after another.

The Panthers seem determined not to make this same mistake. Their offensive line was exposed a year ago, leading to Newton getting battered and an awful 6-10 season. They have signed left tackle Matt Kalil to the largest free-agent contract in team history to combat that. Their slow receivers (Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess) looked to be glued to defensive backs too often in 2016. They drafted speedsters Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel in the first two rounds of the NFL draft last week to fix that. A year removed from the mishandling of the Josh Norman situation, the defense looks like it will be solid again.

So now it will be up to Newton to play at his very top level. The pieces seem to be in place. I’m not overly concerned about his partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder that required surgery in March; many NFL quarterbacks have come back from worse.

What I wonder is how committed Newton will be to fixing his mechanics, to leading by example, and to never getting in a situation again where he doesn’t get to start a crucial game because he didn’t wear a necktie on the team plane.

You’re 28, Cam. Happy birthday.

It’s time to be great.