In NFL.com's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter exchange in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, Jeffri Chadiha kicks off a conversation focused on Cam Newton and his future in the NFL.
Cam Newton isn't diminishing the challenge. The former Carolina Panthers quarterback can see what's coming in this new world he's entered, a realm that will involve its own unique set of hurdles. He's used to being the centerpiece, the foundation, the one man his previous employer couldn't do without. Today, he's merely another unrestricted free agent on the open market, a discarded superstar itching to find a new home.
Newton is unquestionably the best player left in the free agent pool. He's also right up there when it comes to an extraordinary talent who has plenty of questions to answer. Those issues include his ability to: stay healthy (he's had two shoulder surgeries since 2017 and a Lisfranc injury that shelved him for all but two games in 2019); transition into a quarterback who relies less on athleticism and more on accuracy; and potentially handle a role as a backup for the first time in his pro career. Newton's substantial ego is going to take a few more body blows in this process.
The upside is we'll learn more about the man than ever before. We've seen him vault out of relative obscurity to become a Heisman Trophy-winning national champion at Auburn, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft and the league's MVP as he led the Panthers to Super Bowl 50 in 2015. What we haven't seen, at least not in his professional career, is what Newton is truly made of, whether he can rebuild himself when there is so much skepticism mounting around him. Everything he achieves moving forward will require the kind of heavy lifting he hasn't experienced over the past decade.
Newton can still be the eccentric athlete with the wild hair, the outlandish outfits and the social media posts written in what appears to be a crude attempt at hieroglyphics. What he can't do is exhibit the same immaturity that marked some of the low points of his Panthers career -- pouting after Carolina's Super bowl loss, unleashing a sexist remark toward a female reporter. Those moments will be remembered when somebody else is thinking about making him a starter.
Newton already has hinted that he is preparing himself for the rigors of selling himself to his next employer, particularly when he did an interview with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul on Instagram Live recently.
"I really have taken this time to become stronger mentally, physically and spiritually," Newton said, via Sheena Quick of 1340AM FOX Sports. "I think that's more important than anything, man. I've gained this interest in meditating every morning. And it's time for me, where I'm a fish out of water. I've never not known anything other than the Carolina Panthers, and now it's like I want God to direct my path and put me in a position where I can thrive and be myself. But on top of that, it's still [about] becoming better."
It sounds like Newton is saying all the right things, as he should. The three-time Pro Bowler is about to turn 31 (on May 11), and he's well aware that no team wanted to trade for him after Carolina signed Teddy Bridgewater as their new starter.
The question now -- and one that will be discussed here with my fellow writers -- isn't just what's next for Cam Newton. It's more daunting, and one that I'm having a hard time buying into at the moment: Will he ever be a game changer in the NFL again?
Judy Battista: Can I start with a ringing defense of Cam's sartorial choices? I'm no general manager and I understand why they prefer automatons, but this is my vote for a little more self-expression and a little less corporate drone-ism. I have thoughts about whether he can be a game changer again, too, but I needed to support ascots. Now that I have that out of the way ... Unfortunately, I do have concerns about whether he can be a game changer again. You know how Tom Brady is a young 42 (almost 43)? I feel like Cam is an old 30 (almost 31). He has absorbed so many blows beyond just the ones that resulted in the bad shoulder and foot injuries. He has looked like a shell of his former self and -- I had to look this up -- he's lost his last EIGHT appearances going back to 2018. He has played just one 16-game season in the last four. And, unless he somehow goes to New England, where are the potential landing spots that give him the best shot to start and have success? The otherwise-dismantling Jaguars? All of this is complicated by probably having almost no offseason work to acclimate himself to a new team. It's a really bad set of circumstances for a player in his position, but if he's going to be a game changer again, I can't see it happening in 2020.
Jim Trotter: I absolutely believe Newton can be a game changer again. He's too talented and still relatively young. All he needs is an opportunity -- and a group of coaches who will build their system around his dual-threat abilities. If we learned anything from how the Baltimore Ravens handled league MVP Lamar Jackson last season, it is that you can't dip your toes in the water. You have to be all in when it comes to devising a system that plays to the strength of the quarterback. Anything less hurts both the player and, ultimately, the team.
Newton has played only one full season since being voted league MVP in 2015, so it's understandable that clubs might wonder: Do we want to jump in the deep end with a QB who might not be available for all 16 games, or who might not function at a high level for most of the year and into the playoffs? My answer in three words: Yes, you do. My answer in 12 words: You definitely do if you have obvious deficiencies at the quarterback position.
It's comical to think teams such as the Bears, Jaguars, Chargers and, yes, Panthers think they're better without Newton than with him. They prefer to play it safe and go with the known rather than the unknown. It's the front-office version of prevent defense: Better to be wrong than to give critics ammunition to say, "See, told you so," and then have to answer to a scowling owner.
But Newton is a rising tide who can lift a team. He stresses defenses with his mobility and is better from the pocket than many give him credit for. He has to be in the right system with the right coaches, though; he isn't a three-step, dink-and-dunk guy.
I get that all of this is predicated on him being healthy, but I believe he's worth the risk because he will have had nearly a full year of rehab and rest and almost two full years if you exclude the two games he started last season. Now entering his 10th season, he understands defenses better and the importance of avoiding contact as a runner. You could see it the first half of the 2018 season, when he helped the Panthers to a 6-2 start only to sustain the shoulder injury.
Carolina lost its next six games under Newton, as well as its first two in 2019 when he was not physically right, and now some want to hold that against him. But the case can be made he should have shut it down shortly after being injured rather than go through the last four weeks without throwing in practice (which is what he did, according to former coordinator Norv Turner) so he could give himself a chance to be there for his team on Sundays.
It's interesting that his competitive will would be held against him by some, while others continue to focus on his sulking early in his career, or his pre- and post-game fashion, or the fonts he uses in his Instagram posts. All I know is that if you're telling me I'm getting a fully healthy Newton -- on a discounted contract, with a chip on his shoulder to prove doubters wrong -- then sign me up every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I'm all-in, just as a smart team should be.
Michael Silver: I'm with Judy -- 'Superman' is good for the league, and I miss him. And that, to me, is the real reason it's so hard for the four of us, and for NFL coaches and GMs, to assess the situation. Yes, giving Cam a physical would help teams decide if they believe his shoulder and foot are sound. The tougher part is figuring out what's inside his head. The swagger that propelled him to great heights, including his MVP season (when he guided the Panthers to a 15-1 record, and into the Super Bowl, without anything resembling a marquee wide receiver), is the most monumental part of Newton's game.
Last September, on the second Thursday night of the regular season, the Panthers trailed the Bucs 20-14 late in a game at Bank of America Stadium. Newton, who had lost a fumble and failed to throw a touchdown pass, stood on the sideline, frustrated. "Cam -- nothing that has happened out here matters," then-Panthers quarterbacks coach Scott Turner told him before Carolina took over at its own 25 with 2:26 remaining. "Take us down the field, win this game, and that's all anyone's gonna remember." Newton responded by driving the Panthers to the Buccaneers' 2-yard line, where they faced a fourth-and-1 with 1:28 remaining.
With the game on the line, head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Norv Turner opted to take the ball out of Newton's hands, dialing up a trick play that called for Newton to motion out of the shotgun formation and line up as a tight end, with running back Christian McCaffrey taking a direct snap, faking a reverse to Curtis Samuel and racing to the left edge. The play failed, with Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves stopping McCaffrey short of a first down, but that wasn't the most striking part of the sequence. During the timeout that preceded the play, Newton didn't try to talk Turner or Rivera out of calling it; in fact, he endorsed it. That's something Superman would never have done, but this wasn't Superman.
To be clear, I'm not questioning Newton for standing down -- McCaffrey to the edge should work nine times out of 10, and if you know you're not right physically (as the quarterback surely did), it's best not to try to be a hero. But it tells me a lot about the toll these past couple of seasons have taken on Newton, and I'm eager to see if he can get back in touch with his inner superhero.
Chadiha: I feel like we're all in the same boat here. We've enjoyed watching Cam, but we also understand the reality of the NFL. I don't question his work ethic. If anything, I think it's underrated. He worked himself into being the league's Rookie of the Year in his first season. When the Panthers hired Norv Turner, I remember Rivera telling me that Cam was pretty much in awe. He respected the fact that Turner helped so many star quarterbacks blossom in the league and Cam wanted to make the most of that opportunity. But to Jim's point -- who is willing to go all-in with Cam at this stage and create an offense to fit his skill set? Like Judy, I don't see a lot of options for him to legitimately start. Chicago actually would've been the best-case scenario because the Bears are at a point where it's easy to see them moving on from Mitch Trubisky. But they obviously liked Nick Foles as a better option to compete for that job.
Silver: Jim makes a great point about the upside. If Superman returns, it elevates your franchise for years to come. This is a rare opportunity to sign a potentially elite quarterback as a free agent, probably at a relative bargain. The biggest reason not to do that is because you are risk-averse, and/or scared of the pressure such a move might put on you, in terms of heightened expectations. In my opinion the reward greatly outweighs the risk, all things being equal.
One obvious team to look at it is a franchise Jim knows better than anyone: The Chargers. They made a hard run at Tom Brady, which shows you that ownership understands the need for star power/relevance in L.A. Cam's not on that same level of stardom, but the concept is the same. I know Anthony Lynn believes strongly that Tyrod Taylor can function at a high level; however, I also know that Lynn was willing to do whatever it took to make it work with Brady, so he's obviously open to doing what's best for the organization. If you're the Spanos family, it seems weird to me that you wouldn't look very, very hard at making this move.
Trotter: The only reason it doesn't make sense for the Chargers to bring in Newton, if healthy, is that they plan to draft a quarterback, finally landing the long-term replacement for Philip Rivers. They have the sixth overall pick, which means they should have a shot at one of the top three quarterbacks. But one thing I believe strongly is that they won't take a QB for the sake of drafting one. It has to be one they believe is the answer, otherwise they will go elsewhere.
Chadiha: All this brings me back to my first point: I don't see where he goes to find that magical situation. Cam isn't a plug-and-play guy. Think about what Matt Rhule, the Panthers new head coach, said about the team's decision to release Cam. He literally said Teddy Bridgewater is a better fit for their offensive plans. That doesn't mean Cam isn't the better talent. It just means he needs the right supporting cast, the right system and more importantly, the right coach. Rivera doesn't get enough credit for his management style. He's a player's coach and he let Cam be himself. A lot of coaches wouldn't have the confidence to see the importance of doing that. But let's not diminish the fact that Cam likes and needs attention. As one veteran quarterback told me when Cam came into the league, it says a lot when a quarterback wants to wear No. 1. Cam would be wise to make sure he cares more about his next coach than his next opportunity to start. I remember what Andy Reid did for Michael Vick's game at the next stop in Vick's career and what Mike Shanahan did for Donovan McNabb's. Cam doesn't want to be another McNabb.
Battista: This all makes me wonder, especially with so little obvious market right now -- how long will Cam have to wait? Assuming that teams will not be able to examine him for a while, does he just sit out there until facilities can finally re-open and teams can bring in players? That might not be before training camps open and that almost certainly means he'll have to be a backup in the beginning, which is an absolutely incredible bargain for whoever does sign him.
Chadiha: That's a great deal for a team and a lousy one for Cam. I can't imagine he won't have offers before this situation calms down. I just don't know if he's willing to accept a situation that might end with him accepting a backup job for an entire season. Really, who was the last guy with his list of accomplishments at his age who had to be second fiddle? Kurt Warner is the only one who comes to mind and he had to sit behind two first-round picks (Eli Manning and Matt Leinart) before rediscovering his magic.
Silver: If he really is "stronger mentally, physically and spiritually," Cam gets to a good place and thrives eventually. For now, I agree with Jeff: His short-term situation isn't promising. Part of that is bad timing; in a normal (non-COVID-19) year, he'd have a chance to make a case that he is physically healed and to try to forge an in-person connection with a coach and GM who might believe in him. That said, to go back to Jeff's analogy -- Kurt Warner eventually got on the field in Arizona, and got back to the Super Bowl. It would be really cool if Cam ultimately follows that same path.
Chadiha: Like I said earlier, we're all landing in the same place here. I'll just wrap it up with some final thoughts about this topic. There's certainly a possibility for Cam to be a starter again in this league but being a game changer requires more factors that are outside his control. I do want to allude back to one of Jim's initial points about Cam's eccentric nature or the sulking. Everybody should be free to be themselves, but there is an inherent danger in cultivating a persona at that position that is so outsized: It makes decision-makers wary of how well you can fit into a lesser role. It's also hard to get back to being a starter once you've been on a backup track, especially for a quarterback in his 30s. As much as Cam has evolved -- and let's not forget he completed a career-best 67.9 percent of his passes in 2018 -- he's created a situation where interested teams have to wonder if he still needs to be a larger-than-life icon. It wasn't an issue for Bridgewater to be a backup in New Orleans or for Warner to be that with the Giants and Cardinals because they were low-key types as starters. I've always heard great things about Cam as a teammate, and that's a big part of what he'll have to sell to his next team. He's positioned himself as Superman. If he wants another shot at being a game changer -- which is going to involve a more challenging road than he's ever walked in the NFL -- he'll have to mix in a little more Clark Kent in the near future.