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The perfect storm – a history of the enigmatic Cam Newton

How important is culture?

Two forces will collide in the coming months when the charismatic Cam Newton touches down on a cleaned-out New England roster.

In the 2020 off-season, the league was shaken by a plethora of trade moves. The signings that caused the largest ripples through America were that of Tom Brady and his retired pal Rob Gronkowski at Tampa Bay. The pair are arguably two of the sport’s greatest players, having been part of New England’s dynasty since the turn of the century.

Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick was left scrambling for options to replace Brady; his search looked to be an empty one. The Boston-based side were rumoured to be on the hunt for ex-Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston in a swap deal for Brady. When Winston joined New Orleans instead, New England were stranded without a big-name QB.  

It took until June for New England to find their fit. Cam Newton is an undeniably talented prospect. For one season he was the league’s brightest star; his fall from grace makes this next chapter of his career so intriguing. To return to the top, he will have to fit into the selfless atmosphere that surrounds Foxborough, Massachusetts.

When Cam Newton first burst onto the NFL scene, he was a breath of fresh air.

Coming in at pick number one in the 2011 draft, no one expected Newton to rival the experienced quarterbacks that filled the league so quickly. The era was typified by the reliable Peyton Manning and Tom Brady – two of the game’s greatest throwers who did the simple things right. Incredibly right. Newton was bringing his own straw to the competition; his flair shook everything up.

A product of Auburn University, he became the first graduate from the institution to go at pick one since Aundray Bruce in 1988. His college life wasn’t without controversy – a bribery scandal involving his father, who was a former safety himself in the 1990s, threatened to derail Cam’s path to the NFL. When he finally made it, the pressure was heaped on Newton’s muscular shoulders to perform. He worked like crazy to prepare for his rookie season.

‘Superman’ Cam in action during the 2011 pre-season (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

In the months leading up to the 2011 draft, the soon-to-be Carolina Panther enlisted the guidance of famous quarterback trainer George Whitfield Jnr. Whitfield Jnr was brought in to add the finishing touches – he is known for helping develop successful Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. After being selected at pick one, the NFL went into a five-month lockout over a failed collective bargaining agreement. While the pre-season was halted, Newton trained for up to 12 hours a day in Florida with ex-Panthers thrower Chris Weinke. Weinke had been a part of Carolina’s lean patch in the years leading up to 2011. His tutelage of the next generation ensured the upcoming season began a change in fortunes.

Newton wasn’t expected to be a flashy newcomer. Carolina owner Jerry Richardson asked him to refrain from growing his hair longer and adding tattoos or piercings to his appearance – it was clear from the outset the Panthers wanted a trustworthy thrower. Newton accepted the terms, but he was never going to dial back his flair. The Panthers had unwittingly signed a thrower who wasn’t confined to the clean and safe game style of Brady or Manning. Cam Newton was a risk-taker.

Debuting in September 2011, Newton announced himself to the NFL. He became the first rookie to throw for over 400 yards in his debut game – he threw for 422 yards (including two touchdowns) while also rushing separately into the end zone. A week later he broke another record, becoming the first player to start their career with two 400-yard passing games.

It was clear early on that Newton was not in the same mould as Peyton or Brady. The latter were slow movers who sat back and picked off passes by spying gaps in the defence. Newton may not have been as calculating as his superiors, but playing on instinct and talent threw sides off kilter. He may not have looked it, but Newton was deceptively quick and agile for his 195cm frame. Newton was meant to be a dinosaur; a sluggish train who sat back and unleashed cannon passes downfield. Instead, he was dynamic, able to break through tackles and rush in touchdowns. By December, he had broken the NFL record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback when he strolled in for three scores against Tampa Bay. Fast-forward to New Year’s Day in 2012 and he had become the first rookie QB to throw over 4,000 yards. Did I mention he could also become a receiver at will too? It’s safe to say Newton was the complete package.

Newton’s breakout season gave him numerous accolades – he was handed two separate Rookie of the Year awards, and made the cut for the 2012 Pro Bowl. He had already earnt the nickname ‘Superman’ for his flashy touchdown celebrations, and he had started a Carolina ritual of giving away the ball to a lucky fan when his side reached the endzone. In no way was Newton the next heir to the Brady throne. He was Cam.

One knock on Newton’s game as he continued to develop in the NFL was his inaccuracy. When he chose to throw, he had a high rate of interceptions. It was the only dent on an extremely talented quarterback who shouldered the fortunes of his franchise each week. But his ability to improve was about to be sorely tested.

The ‘dab’ that typified Cam Newton’s exuberance

After adjusting to the different tactics that teams schemed against him in 2012 and 2013, Newton faced numerous injuries during the 2014 season. A pre-season surgery sought to fix an ankle problem he had dealt with since his time at Auburn. A brutal collision in a pre-season game saw him sustain a rib fracture. Upon returning, he began to show clear improvement in terms of throwing choice and execution. Just as he sat primed to lead his Panthers into a second consecutive playoff run, he was involved in a car crash and broke two vertebrae in his lower back. Newton would return to help his side into the second week of the post-season, but even the brilliance of Superman couldn’t come back from such a tough season.

But as they say, you have to endure the rain to enjoy the sun. Newton’s summer of sunshine came in 2015.

Re-negotiating his contract at the season’s start, Carolina ended up timing their re-signing perfectly. Newton started off leading his side to a 3-0 start – his performances drew praise from many experts who noticed his astute passing and wise decision-making when faced with blitzing defences. The Panthers won for the first time in Seattle to kickstart a season that would see them breeze into the Super Bowl. After 12 weeks they sat undefeated – Newton had joined Brady as being the only player to be named offensive player of the week three times in five weeks. The Panthers had a 15-1 record going into the playoffs, and smacked Arizona 49-15 to set up a date with the best defence in the league. He had created ripples in America’s sporting culture by popularising the ‘dab’ as a celebration for touchdowns. Avid NFL fans couldn’t get enough of ‘Superman’ Cam – the Lombardi Trophy was his for the taking.

Having blitzed Brady’s play of the week record, Newton had surpassed one of his contemporaries. To win the Super Bowl and clinch a championship, Newton now had to overcome the other throwing forefather in Peyton Manning and his Denver Broncos.

On the eve of Super Bowl 50, Newton became the 2015 league MVP. From his dab celebrations to his undeniable talent, the NFL’s fiftieth season revolved around Cam Newton. The Denver Broncos arrived ready to bring him down.

Led by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, the Broncos performed a miracle. Newton hadn’t been stopped all year – six sacks, two fumbles and an interception saw the underdogs snatch a 24-10 win. Manning, although being on the winning side, had a similarly shocking day. Arguably one of the greatest individual seasons in the NFL came crashing down under glorious Santa Clara skies. ‘Superman’ had met his Kryptonite.

A decisive fumble that cost Carolina the Super Bowl (Image by Richard Mackson)

In the years that followed this dream-crushing loss, Newton never rediscovered his scintillating 2015 touch. He threatened to break out again at times, but shoulder injuries restricted his multi-faceted game from truly flourishing. By the end of the 2019/20 season, Carolina made the tough decision to let their fallen star go after he had struggled with a foot fracture.

Cast out into the wilderness, Newton’s YouTube channel detailed the work he put in to recover. ‘Superman’ had starred in the system, only to be chewed up and spat out. Now he wanted a shot at redemption.

Newton faces a new challenge at the imposing New England roster (Image by Jeff Siner)

It took until June, but Newton finally found a home at New England. In a side that is well-known for putting the collective before themselves, Newton will face a tantalising season trying to fit into the different culture. Bill Belichick and the Pats have nothing to lose – they snatched him for a bargain, and can only seek to gain from a fit Cam Newton. If ‘Superman’ is uninjured and can recreate just a sliver of what he produced in 2015, New England’s dynasty may not be over yet. It may just grow legs and waltz on into the endzone more often. This time with a dab and a dash of flair.

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