Cam Newton’s last game with the Panthers shows, once again, that the NFL isn’t fair

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Just after he signed a one-year contract with the Carolina Panthers, his original NFL team, quarterback Cam Newton held a press conference. The main theme of that Nov. 12 event was that Newton had come to Charlotte to work, not as a ceremonial figurehead.

“This ain’t no parade,” Newton said.

He was right about that.

There has been no parade down Tryon Street for Newton or these Panthers, who have lost six games in a row and are about to complete their fourth straight losing season. Newton couldn’t save the Panthers in 2021, no matter how hard he worked. Really, no one could — this team was too far gone.

Newton will exit with class. Given that he has turned down multiple requests the last two weeks to talk to the local media, he may also have already given his final statements as a Panther. His most recent press conference came Dec. 26, after the last Tampa Bay game. Newton had gotten benched in that 32-6 loss and stood alone at the 25-yard line for most of the fourth quarter, hands clasped behind his back, watching the rest of the contest.

“On the sideline, I had a moment where you look back over the year at guys who taught you,” Newton said afterward. He then mentioned former Panther greats like Steve Smith, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Josh Norman (even though Newton got into a brief fight with him once), Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil and Julius Peppers.

“They understood what ‘Keep Pounding’ meant,” Newton said.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stands on the sidelines and watches the game against the Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, December 26, 2021 in Charlotte, NC. Newton’s contract end after this season and his future with the Panthers is uncertain.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stands on the sidelines and watches the game against the Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, December 26, 2021 in Charlotte, NC. Newton’s contract end after this season and his future with the Panthers is uncertain.

So did Newton, who kept pounding and brought the energy to Bank of America Stadium on a more consistent basis than anyone else ever did. He was the preeminent alpha male in a locker room full of alpha males. He never made excuses or complained about the inherent unfairness of life in the NFL.

And it does feel unfair sometimes. It will feel unfair Sunday, when the quarterback almost certainly closes the door on Cam Newton 2.0 with the Panthers in Tampa Bay (4:25 p.m. kickoff, CBS). That’s not much of a fitting ending, and that’s only if he gets to play at all.

0-5 as a starter this season

What would have been much more fitting for Newton: a home game, a win, a fine performance and a ride into the sunset. But in the NFL it rarely happens that way.

After going 0-5 as a starter behind a bedraggled Carolina offensive line in November and December, Newton will begin Carolina’s season finale on the bench. Sam Darnold will start and may play the whole game unless he gets hurt. Darnold is under contract with the Panthers for 2022, after all. Newton isn’t.

The Panthers do have a handful of plays ready for Newton — they call them, appropriately, “The Cam Plays.” These are mostly for situations like third-and-1 or second-and-goal, and it’s unclear whether any of them will get used. On many, Newton runs the ball, as that’s now clearly what he’s best at doing.

I hope Newton does at least get into this game. You likely do, too, just to see what would happen next. One of the best things about Newton has always been the thrum of possibility every time he breaks the huddle.

But mostly Newton is about to stand on the sideline once again for a 5-11 team that has lost six in a row. He’s now a 32-year-old NFL quarterback with an iffy arm who probably isn’t ready to retire from the game he loves and who will likely attempt to sign a new deal in free agency. That deal, if it comes, will probably be elsewhere as a backup.

The Panthers have their own plans at quarterback in 2022. Those boil down to either “Fix Darnold” or “Get Someone New” or, more likely, trying to do both at the same time.

For Newton, this game will be his 133rd with Carolina, and most likely his last. Of course, I thought that two years ago, too, when the Panthers tried to trade Newton shortly after head coach Matt Rhule got to Charlotte and then released him outright while signing Teddy Bridgewater.

“I’m Baaaack!” Carolina Panthers Cam Newton screams after he scored a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals at the State Farm Stadium in Glendale AZ, on Sunday, November 14, 2021.
“I’m Baaaack!” Carolina Panthers Cam Newton screams after he scored a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals at the State Farm Stadium in Glendale AZ, on Sunday, November 14, 2021.

Through an odd set of circumstances, though, the Panthers then re-signed Newton 19 months later. Newton screamed “I’m B-A-A-A-CK!” after accounting for two touchdowns on his first two plays at Arizona Nov. 14, and life briefly felt like a fairy tale again.

“I’m telling you, you can’t make up a lie this good,” Newton said at the time.

4 straight losing seasons for Panthers

But it has been mostly potholes and roadblocks since.

That has been life for the Panthers, really, for the past four years. They made the playoffs in 2017 — the fourth time Newton had gotten them there in a five-year span. Since then, it’s been 7-9, 5-11, 5-11 and either 5-12 or 6-11 this season. The Panthers are in the midst of a historic down cycle — they’ve never had four losing seasons in a row until now.

I thought the Panthers should have stuck Newton out there for a play or two deep in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay, then called timeout, brought him back off the field and let the fans applaud him. But that would have felt “gratuitous,” Rhule said later, intimating that Newton wanted no part of such a gesture.

That’s fine. Newton can say goodbye on his own terms. He’ll undoubtedly be back in the Panthers’ stadium to join the team’s Hall of Honor in a few years and likely before that.

Still, I would have liked to have seen that curtain call, and I would like to see Newton do something special Sunday so he can go out with a bang rather than a whimper. But the likelihood is he won’t. Endings usually aren’t tidy in the NFL.

So Newton is about to leave the Panthers for good, as a backup, on the road. His uniform will likely be clean, his dignity intact, his future uncertain.

Goodbye again, Cam. It’s been complicated at times, but overall it’s been a blast.

Come back and see us sometime. Charlotte still has a parade it wants to throw you.