It has been allsmiles in Charlotte since Cam Newton signed with the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011. Last week, the Carolina Panthers went on the road and defeated the Arizona Cardinals — who were playing without two of their best, Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins — who have the best record in the NFL. The very first touchdown of that game was scored on the Panthers’ first drive, a two-yard scamper by Newton. If you didn’t know before, now you knew. Newton was back.
Outstanding appetizer. It’s like if queso dip and potato skins had a baby. But it’s now time for dinner. Panthers coach Matt Rhule told the media on Wednesday that he is leaning toward starting Newton against the Washington Football Team and Newton’s former coach Ron Rivera. It’s time for the answer to the question that we couldn’t find out at the beginning of the season because the New England Patriots cut Newton: Is he still a viable starting quarterback in the NFL?
The biggest question about Newton is his health and arm strength. As a refresher on the discussion about him toward the end of last season, I Googled “Cam Newton arm strength” from Nov. 1 of 2020 to the end of last season.
Here is what Page 1 of the search returned:
A picture’s worth a thousand words, or in this case, about 100 damning ones. A look back at the stats shows there was good reason for alarm. When Newton returned from his bout with COVID in Week 5, he passed for 200-plus yards in only four of the remaining games. That’s the exact same number of games in which he passed for less than 100 yards.
Look at a couple of Newton’s game-winning drives from last season while playing for New England. Against the New York Jets, he threw three passes, two of which were screens. He does make a big 20-yard completion to get them in field-goal range, but after the play, he looks like he’s trying to smile through pain. Against the Arizona Cardinals, Newton completed one screen and one five-yard pass. The big play on that drive was an unnecessary roughness penalty after he gained 14 yards on a bootleg. Early in the offseason, The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin reported that Belichick was fond of Newton, but also concerned about his arm strength.
The 2021 preseason began with promise for Newton and the Patriots. He threw the ball downfield a little more often, and at times showed flashes of his old self. Combine that with him still being a dangerous run threat, 12 rushing touchdowns in 2020, and It appeared that the starting job was his to lose against rookie Mac Jones. That is, until his unvaccinated status at the time — he’s vaccinated now — kept him away from the Patriots for five days. He was then released.
The Week 11 2021 Panthers don’t have much of a choice at quarterback. Sam Darnold is on IR and wasn’t playing that well before going on the list. P.J. Washington played well enough against a depleted Cardinals roster, but for the Panthers to make a playoff push, Newton must be an actual dual threat.
What the Panthers and Newton do have on their side — that they and the Patriots didn’t in the past — ironically as they’re trying to make a playoff push, is time. The Panthers have six games remaining on their schedule and still haven’t had their bye week. If there was one game where Newton looked like his old self last season it was that close Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He passed for 397 yards and a touchdown, and ran for two more. He played one more game after that before COVID sidelined him. This year, he’ll be sidelined by the schedule instead of disease after his first three games.
While 2015 MVP Cam isn’t coming through that door, there is a chance that for the remainder of the season early 2018 Cam Newton can make an appearance. His health didn’t hold for all of that season, but in the first eight games, he threw for 1,893 yards, 15 touchdowns, four interceptions, and scored four touchdowns on the ground, and the Panthers’ record was 6-2. This year, with a great defense, a recently healthy Christian McCaffrey, and D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson on the outside, a rested Newton just might be able to make enough plays to get the 5-5 Panthers to the playoffs.
As electric as Newton was against the Cardinals last week, that came more from hype and his force of personality than a couple of two-yard touchdowns. On Sunday it’ll be his show again in Charlotte. That place will rock like it hasn’t rocked all season, but how will the fans feel after the game? Will they feel like they had a complete meal, or will they wish that they doubled up on the appetizer?