Scott Fowler

Time for QB Cam Newton to prove what he can do one more time for the Panthers

The NFL is a “prove-it” league. Even for former league MVPs.

At age 30, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton still has some things to prove all over again in 2019 — that he can stay healthy, that he remains an elite athlete and that he can win with this Panthers team that has been constructed around him.

As Newton begins his ninth NFL season with a home opener against the Los Angeles Rams, the arc of his career remains in flux. On one hand, the quarterback had a remarkable MVP season in 2015 and will be a contender for a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he retires. Newton led the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015 and he has directed the team into the playoffs on three other occasions (2013, 2014 and 2017). He’s done so while becoming arguably the best running quarterback in NFL history. He’s definitely one of the top five players the Panthers have ever employed.

On the other hand, Newton has yet to win a Super Bowl. His record as a playoff quarterback is 3-4. He’s had two surgeries on his throwing shoulder in the past 2 ½ years. He played only 11 plays in the Panthers’ most recent exhibition season but got hurt again — a mid-foot sprain, which healed quickly and isn’t supposed to affect his mobility against the Rams.

We must ask: Have we already seen the best of Cam Newton?

Or is his best season — the one where the Panthers win it all, with Newton as their charismatic leader — still somewhere around the bend?

Many great NFL quarterbacks have played well into their late 30s and even their early 40s. Not a lot of great running quarterbacks have done so, in part because their bodies get beaten up more quickly. If Newton is going to play another 10 years, he will need to continue to modify his approach, running more selectively and getting rid of the ball quicker.

As for Sunday, Newton and the Panthers face the Rams, the defending NFC champions, in a difficult home opener. But at least Newton can throw the ball long now, which wasn’t the case the last time he played a real game in Charlotte last December.

Said Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner of Newton: “He’s throwing the deep ball real well … It’s exciting to have him where he can make those throws.”

Although the Rams’ offense was No. 2 in the NFL last season in both points and total yards and generates most of the buzz around the team, remember that the their defense held New England to 13 points in the Super Bowl and only three points through the game’s first 52 minutes. If not for the fact that the New England defense was even more smothering, that outcome would have been different.

IMG_Cam_Newton_Kyle_Alle_2_1_CMG5UBOS_L482637209.JPG
Cam Newton shares a laugh during practice with his two backups -- Kyle Allen (left) and Will Grier. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Newton will have to deal Sunday not only with all-everything Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald storming the castle but also with a group of other playmakers. They are all intent on making him look like the supremely compromised Cam Newton of December 2018 rather than the supremely confident version we saw in 2015.

Newton still has respect around the league. Said Rams coach Sean McVay: “He can beat you with his legs, he can beat you with his arm … He can run over you, he can shake you, he can run away from you … It’s a nightmare to prepare for.”

And Newton’s arm troubles late last season overshadowed how good of a start he had in 2018. Even after missing the final two games, he ended up posting a career high in completion percentage (67.9). He also finished with his second-best season in terms of quarterback efficiency, trailing only his MVP season of 2015.

Newton sounds like he’s ready. The quarterback went full-fledged vegan during the offseason and said the new diet has helped his body recover more quickly from workouts. He said Wednesday that he hopes fans understand how much he still loves football.

“I want them to see the joy as if it’s Day 1,” he said, “because that’s how I feel.”

Cam Newton smiles at Fan Fest
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton waves to the cheering fans prior to the start of the team’s Fan Fest at Bank of America Stadium on Friday, August 2, 2019. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Day 1 was a long time ago. But there are still plenty of things left to do in a career that may only have hit its midpoint.

“I feel like a rookie again,” he said Wednesday. “I’m having fun, feeling good. And the thrill is still there, man.”

That’s good news. You want Newton playing like he’s thrilled to be there. He’s at his best when he’s happy.

But happiness is a temporary state of mind in the NFL. Danger always lurks. Newton has handled that danger well for much of his career.

Now he must prove he can do it again.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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