Cam Newton’s Long, Tumultuous Climb to the Top of the NFL
Reigning MVP Cam Newton may be the most polarizing quarterback in the NFL, but his resiliency and maturity continues to catapult him to greater heights. Will this year be the one where Cam hoists the Lombardi Trophy?
For most of last year, Cam Newton was sitting on the top of the sports world. He led the Carolina Panthers to the best regular season record in the NFL (franchise best 15-1). Cam was named the Pro Football Writers of America’s Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year for 2015. And on February 6, 2016, Newton was voted the NFL’s MVP, becoming the first black quarterback to outright win the MVP award (Steve McNair shared the MVP in 2003 with Peyton Manning). It could be argued that Newton is riding a winning streak that is unprecedented in NFL history.
But his historic season ended on a low note; Cam and his Carolina Panthers lost convincingly to the Denver Broncos. On the biggest stage, Cam was thoroughly embarrassed by the Broncos’ defense and looked nothing like an MVP-caliber quarterback. The 2016 NFL season kicks off tonight with Cam once again facing off against the Broncos, the same team that crushed his storybook season one year ago.
But Cam’s disappointment in the Super Bowl wasn’t the only time he’s faced setbacks and scrutiny. In fact, life in the NFL hasn’t always been easy for the sixth-year quarterback out of Auburn. Those who have paid close attention to the career of Newton know he has endured a fair share of controversies, poor choices, and questions about his maturity and leadership. He also tends to provoke strong reactions from others. People seem to enjoy hating on Cam as much as they enjoy loving him. He may be riding high, but his ascension has been one long rollercoaster ride.
AUBURN: EARLY SUCCESS ON THE FIELD
Outside of Georgia or Florida, most folks first heard of Newton as he led the Auburn Tigers to the 2011 National Championship. Cam won the SEC Offensive Player of the Week after his first game and never looked back. He led the Tigers to an SEC Championship, their first since 2004, and became the third player in NCAA FBS history (along with Time Tebow and Colin Kaepernick) to throw and run for 20-plus touchdowns in a single season. Newton was voted the 2010 SEC Offensive Player of the Year, the AP Player of the Year, and become the third Auburn player to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy, joining Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson. Auburn captured the BCS National Championship with a 22-19 win over Oregon, their first national title since 1957. He would soon declare for the NFL draft. On April 28th, Cam Newton was the first overall pick of the 2011 NFL draft, taken by the Carolina Panthers. In his lone full season in college, Newton won the Heisman Trophy, the National Championship, and was the first overall pick in that year’s NFL draft. He is the only quarterback of the modern era to achieve all three milestones in the same year.
ARREST, TRANSFERS, AND PAY-FOR-PLAY ALLEGATIONS: CONTROVERSY AND SETBACKS OFF THE FIELD
Despite a collegiate season for the ages, Cam Newton was never meant to be an Auburn Tiger. As a senior at Westlake High School in Atlanta, he was rated the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the nation. The five-star prospect received scholarship offers from Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, and Maryland. He catapulted Florida’s 2008 recruiting class to the top when he committed to the Florida Gators’ program.
Newton quickly established his importance to the program, earning the back-up position behind eventual Heisman winner Tim Tebow as a freshman. But during his sophomore season opener against Hawaii, Cam broke his ankle and was forced to take a medical redshirt season. Cam’s controversy began on November 21, 2008 when he was arrested for receiving stolen property after purchasing a stolen laptop computer from another University of Florida student. He was subsequently suspended from the team, and it was reported that Newton tossed the computer out of his dorm window to avoid having stolen property in his possession. All charges against Newton were dropped after he completed a court-approved pre-trial diversion program. “I believe that a person should not be thought of as a bad person because of some senseless mistake that they made,” said Newton in 2010. “I think every person should have a second chance. If they blow that second chance, so be it for them.”
Just before Florida’s National Championship win over Oklahoma, Cam Newton announced he was transferring from the University of Florida. He would transfer to Blinn College in Brenham, Texas and lead them to the 2009 NJCAA National Football Championship. He was again heavily recruited and eventually signed with the Auburn Tigers.
Despite a historic season at Auburn, controversies off the field jeopardized his eligibility during his junior year. Allegations surfaced that Cecil Newton, Cam’s father, and ex-Mississippi State player Kenny Rogers propositioned Mississippi State for $120,000-$180,000 in order for Cam to sign with the Bulldogs. Auburn was able to successfully argue that their starting quarterback wasn’t aware of the play-for-play proposition, never had a verbal or written agreement with his father or Rogers to act as his agent, and that Rogers never received any compensation from the Newton family. Along with his arrest and suspension at Florida, questions about Newton’s maturity grew louder and stronger. The NCAA investigation of Newton’s recruitment or other unrelated pay-for-play allegations lasted 13-months.
QUESTIONS ABOUT NEWTON’S NFL PROSPECTS: VALID OR EARLY HINTS OF RACISM AND PREJUDICE?
The scrutiny only built as the NFL draft approached and hit its peak when Nolan Nawrocki released his controversial scouting report on Cam Newton. In the report, Nawrocki criticized Newton’s maturity, leadership, and accountability, despite never having met Newton. Having just completed one of the greatest college seasons of all-time, many took Nawrocki’s scathing takedown of Newton’s NFL potential as veiled racism.
Full Disclosure: I have to admit, I had serious reservations about Cam Newton coming out of college. His talent and success at Auburn was unquestionable. And at the time I could not make the argument that any other prospect or amateur player deserved to be the number one pick over Cam Newton. But his maturity, leadership, and self-absorption drew significant red flags for me. Nolan Nawrocki’s assessment did not factor into my concerns. I had never heard of him until his takedown of Cam made national headlines and became the talk of sports radio and ESPN programming. Nor was I thinking about the challenges dual-threat quarterbacks face in the NFL. I had watched Steve Young, Steve McNair, and Randall Cunningham all transform the quarterback position.
No, it was the maturity and leadership piece I had concerns about, because many former first round prospects with similar concerns or past legal trouble turned into colossal disappointments in the National Football League. Lawrence Phillips and Maurice Clarett are two extreme examples of stars from prestigious college programs that endured legal or eligibility issues in their college careers and never found their footing in the NFL. But when I think of franchise quarterbacks that became all-time busts, JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf stand alone at the top. Both had strong arms, led their teams to successful seasons in their junior years, and declared for the NFL draft before their senior season. And both are considered the biggest busts in NFL draft history. Cam Newton at #1 may have been the right choice, but it was still considered a gamble. His NFL prospects were anything but guaranteed. There were safer choices in the draft, but none with the ceiling of Cam Newton.
ALL-TIME GREAT ROOKIE SEASON (STATISTIC WISE)
Despite questions and concerns about Cam (I wasn’t the only person who was cautiously optimistic about Newton), his rookie season started out with a historic bang. Newton became the first rookie quarterback to throw for 400 yards in his first game, a number he would duplicate again in his second game. In addition to the splash he made in his debut and follow-up, here are the other historic feats from Cam’s rookie campaign:
- Became the first rookie quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season.
- Became the first rookie quarterback to rush for 700 yards.
- Set the single season NFL record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 14.
- Became the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 500 yards in a single season.
He would earn a trip to the Pro Bowl as a rookie and was a near-unanimous selection as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year for the 2011 season.
SUPERMAN SULKING ON THE SIDELINES
Despite the statistical accomplishments, not everything was all-time great with Cam and Carolina. His rookie season with the Panthers was the first time Newton had to deal with the difficulty of losing football games. Carolina started out the season 2-8. Despite the eye-popping statistics, there was growing murmurs that the rookie sensation took the game into his own hands, often at the expense of the experience and trust from his teammates. During the offseason leading up to his sophomore campaign, Newton admitted in a Yahoo! Sports interview, “I was very immature” about his reaction to loses. “I’ll be the first one to tell you, the pouting and the moping, I kind of overdid it. I know that. I was a bad teammate. I shut off to some people who gave unbelievable effort…That’s where I have to mature.” Coach Ron Rivera himself called Cam “Mr. Mopey Head” when his pouting became headline news.
The 2012 season was expected to be the year where Cam’s individual accomplishments translated into team success, but Cam and the team stumbled out the gate. The team started out 1-6, fired longtime General Manager Marty Hurney, and Cam’s individual statistics declined along with the team’s fortunes. Critics and commentators alike began to question whether Cam’s first two pro games were outliers and exceptions rather than the sign of things to come from the franchise savior.
Featured Artwork by Andy Smith.
And again, the sports world centered on Newton’s difficulty with handling adversity. The large cache of goodwill that Cam accumulated in his rookie season quickly evaporated. The same old questions about his immaturity and leadership resurfaced. After an especially embarrassing performance in a blowout loss to the New York Giants, the Panther’s star receiver, Steve Smith, ripped into Cam’s sideline demeanor and questioned his commitment to improving his game. Speculation circulated whether Cam was seeing a sport psychologist (or whether he should if he wasn’t already).
Fans and the media also took umbrage toward Cam’s signature Superman celebrations, especially during a season of disappointing results. Articles and commentary surfaced, pointing to Cam Newton as “the personification of today’s fast-paced, instant gratification, narcissistic society.” Critics interpreted his celebrations as showboating, excessive, and self-promoting. Newton faced questions about his priorities; would he’d rather look good and lose than look bad and win? After two seasons in the NFL, his critics were still questioning whether Cam could be a successful franchise quarterback.
SUPERMAN FINDS HIS JUSTICE LEAGUE TEAM
Going into Cam’s third season, the quarterback and franchise found themselves at a crossroads. Coach Ron Rivera was also in the hot seat, and having jettisoned the GM the previous season, rumors were running rampant (along with grumblings from disgruntled fans) that Rivera, Newton, or both could be in the hot seat if the team’s fortunes didn’t improve.
Many potential franchise quarterbacks have faced similar challenges in their third season. Vince Young, Robert Griffin III, and Mark Sanchez are just a few who also found their NFL careers and futures in jeopardy going into their third season. And all three are textbook examples of quarterbacks that failed to sustain or elevate their game. Many quarterbacks regress and fold in the face of adversity. The same fortunes could have easily befallen Cam Newton. But the 2013 season would be when Cam and company exhibited resiliency and grit. Newton and the entire Panther franchise became a united team. The third-year quarterback started to show his team and the league that he was capable of learning and growing, and he has never looked back.
It’s no surprise that up until this past 2015 season, Cam’s worst statistical season translated into the most wins for the team. It was no longer the “Cam” show. He was starting to trust and rely on others. Self-discipline and self-control are two hallmarks of a resilient mindset. Like many young quarterbacks, early on in his career Cam would hold onto the ball too long, hoping to make a big play on every snap. Often this would result in a sack or turnover. Although Cam’s sacks increased in 2013, his mistakes and turnovers decreased. His interception and fumble total (14) was a career low, a mark he tied this past season. Instead of errant throws off his back foot, Cam started to throw the ball away and live for another down. He trusted his teammates and coaches to perform their duties and Cam found comfort with his teammates and offensive system. It became less about Cam and more about the Panthers. Newton also began to share the spotlight and credit for the team’s success. “Riverboat” Ron Rivera was voted Coach of the Year and second-year star linebacker Luke Kuechly was voted Defensive Player of the Year. It’s no coincidence that the 2013 season saw the Panthers’ win total increase (12-4 record) while Cam’s individual statistics decreased. Newton totaled career lows in passing yards-per-game (211.2 vs. career high 253.2 his rookie season) and rushing yards-per-game (36.6 vs. career high 46.3 in 2012) while the success of the team skyrocketed. The 2013 season also saw Cam establish a then career-high in passing touchdowns (24), and his 61.7% pass-completion rate is still his career high.
It’s one thing to get advice from others. It’s an entirely different issue to be receptive to help and constructive criticism from others. In his third year as a professional, Cam made the leap.
The 2014 season would prove to be another period of adversity and resiliency, as the team adjusted to the release of long-time Panther favorite Steve Smith. It’s no coincidence that Cam’s ascension as the leader and face of the franchise occurred when Carolina released their longtime star receiver. Although Smith’s release established the Panthers intentions to develop a younger nucleus of players for the future, it was no secret that the franchise wanted people to identify the Panthers as Cam Newton’s team. Smith’s fiery, competitive side created a locker room culture of divisiveness, sometimes at Cam’s expense.
The release of Steve Smith was a gigantic gamble. He had been the face of the franchise and the team’s best all-time player. Smith had also been the Newton’s favorite target and most dependable receiver. Newton’s fourth year turned out to be another rollercoaster ride. They endured a midseason five game losing streak. Injuries plagued Cam the entire season. He sustained back, rib, and ankle problems, and for the first time in his career, Cam missed games due to injury. Still, the team ended the regular season with a four game winning streak to capture the NFC South Division with a 7-8-1 record. Cam won his first playoff game, beating the Arizona Cardinals 27-16 before losing to then defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. The Panthers were confident enough to hand him a five-year, $103 million contract extension in the off-season that made him among the highest-paid players in the league.
A STORYBOOK SEASON FILLED WITH DOUBTERS AND SKEPTICS
It’s fair to say that no one predicted the success that Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers achieved last season. When Cam’s top receiver Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the year with a preseason ACL injury, the odd-makers were not kind to the Panther’s postseason prospects. Cam opened the 2015 NFL season tied for 19th along with 11 other players at a 50/1 odds of winning the MVP. Andrew Luck started the season as the odds-on-favorite at +300. Notable players that were given better MVP odds than Cam were Sam Bradford (16/1), Matthew Stafford (40/1), and Ryan Tannehill (40/1).
But the Panthers appear to be fueled by the doubters and second-guessers. Cam displayed a cool and calming confidence last season, even when leads diminished or games went into overtime. “Something that I don’t think should be seen on a quarterback’s face is panic,” he said after leading his team on a game-winning drive against the New York Giants. Newton is now making adjustments at the line of scrimmage and changing plays. Detractors could chalk up the improvement to mere experience. But most NFL players aren’t able to make the jump, regardless of opportunity, experience, and time. Tim Couch, David Carr, Sam Bradford, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, Christian Ponder, and Joey Harrington are just a few of the many first-round draft busts at the quarterback position. Each were given ample opportunity to mature and improve. And they are generally viewed as disappointments or all-time busts.
A POLARIZING PERSONALITY AND CONTINUED CRITICISMS WITH RACIAL UNDERTONES
And yet, Cam continued to be a lightning rod for other people’s criticisms, moral standards, and double-standards. And intentional or not, it’s difficult to not hear racial undertones echoing beneath the criticisms and attacks. What Nolan Nawrocki kicked off in 2011 has never really dissipated for Cam.
Last season was also been a celebration for Newton off the field. Cam and his longtime girlfriend became parents when she gave birth to Chosen Sabastian Newton on December 24, 2015. What should have been a personal high point again brought reflexive contempt from fans. Multiple Panther fans took to the local Charlotte Observer newspaper to express their disappointment in their star quarterback. “Cam is a role model to many of our young males, both white and black. The least that he and his longtime girlfriend could have done is to get married prior to giving birth to show his followers that not only is he a superstar, but also a person with high morals.”
To be fair, I cannot confirm whether or not these same football fans also sent editorial letters to the Observer when Riley Cooper was caught on video making racial slurs and epithets or when he got a new contract deal. Surely the same folks raised their moral objections when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady left his pregnant girlfriend for Brazilian supermodel Giselle. I only bring up these examples to highlight how much Newton gets excoriated for things that other athletes get a pass. Vocativ.com took the inherent racism behind the criticism of Cam Newton and even turned it into a quiz titled “Who Did It: Cam Newton Or Some White Quarterback?“
After the Carolina Panthers improved to 9-0 with a win at Tennessee, all the talk in the sports world centered on his fourth-quarter dance. Rosemary Plorin, who attended the Tennessee-Panthers game with her 9-year-old daughter, sent the Charlotte Observer a note she wrote to Newton questioning whether he set a good example with his dance called the “dab.”
“Because of where we sat, we had a close up view of your conduct in the fourth quarter. The chest puffs. The pelvic thrusts. The arrogant struts and the ‘in your face’ taunting of both the Titans’ players and fans. We saw it all.
“And because you are a role model, your behavior brought out like behavior in the stands. Some of the Panthers fans in our section began taunting the hometown fans. Many Titans fans booed you, a few offering instructive, but not necessarily family friendly, suggestions as to how you might change your behavior.
“My daughter sensed the change immediately — and started asking questions. Won’t he get in trouble for doing that? Is he trying to make people mad? Do you think he knows he looks like a spoiled brat?”
“I don’t know about your family life Mr. Newton, but I think I’m safe in saying thousands of kids watch you every week. You have amazing talent and an incredible platform to be a role model for them. Unfortunately, what you modeled for them today was egotism, arrogance and poor sportsmanship.
“Is that what your coaches and mentors modeled for you, Mr. Newton?”
I’m not here to defend or decry Cam’s fourth quarter celebration. But for anyone who follows professional sports, nothing about Cam’s celebratory behavior was any different than what is on full display in every minute of professional sports. On any given Sunday, Cam Newton’s “dab” is one of dozens of antics and expressions of celebration that goes on during a football game. Why does his become national attention? Because most media pundits speculated that Ms. Plorin exploited her 9 year-old daughter by transferring her own thoughts and opinions into the mouth of a child. Why did this become a national story? Because Ms. Florin elevated her own pious supremacy by making her the standard bearer of morals and parenting, dragging Cam’s parenting and upbringing into the equation (“I don’t know about your family life Mr. Newton…”).
— Cristina Ledra (@cledra) November 17, 2015
Why did Rosemary Plorin’s letter become such a topic of debate? Because Cam went on the national media, defended Ms. Plorin’s right to have an opinion, and even apologized if his actions offended her. And how did Ms. Plorin respond to Cam’s classy response? She applauded him and apologized that she “didn’t understand him better.” What about her classless complaint, dragging his family into the situation, and calling him egotistic, arrogant, a poor sportsman, a spoiled brat, and blaming him for any and all unruly behavior in the stands? Nope, no apology for any of that. The only offense of Rosemary Plorin was that she “didn’t understand” Cam Newton better.
— NFL (@NFL) November 24, 2015
Since the day he was first became a Carolina Panther, Newton has worked hard to establish a strong presence in the local community. Every Thanksgiving Cam helps feed hundreds of hungry kids with his annual Thanksgiving meal, something he’s done since coming into the league. This year, he even held a “dab” contest with the children.
Cam Newton is putting on a dab contest at his annual Thanksgiving Jam feeding 900 CLT kids pic.twitter.com/VQDgpZD29I
— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) November 23, 2015
However, there is no greater demonstration of Cam’s love of football and affection for children, than his now customary “Sunday Giveaway” when Cam gives a lucky kid in the stands the football from all his touchdown scores. Cam Newton has been giving away footballs to kids after each score since his rookie season in 2011.
Now his teammates join the fun too and giving away footballs to children after touchdowns has become one of the most beloved traditions by Carolina Panthers fans.
Cam’s character, community contributions, and leadership came full circle when he was announced the winner of the Ed Block Courage Award on January 13, 2016. It speaks volumes to the growth and maturity that he has accomplished both on and off the field. The Ed Block winner is voted by teammates, some of the same teammates who in years past believed Cam had some serious growing up to do in his earlier playing years. On a team that has a plethora of worthy candidates, that Newton’s teammates chose him reinforces that the hard work and commitment that Cam has put forth in all areas of his life are paying off. In a New York Times Article, Greg Olsen commented, “I think when you come in as a young player, as he did, with such expectations and such high regard with what he accomplished, first overall pick and all that, obviously there’s a lot of expectation placed on you. He’s done everything and more to surpass those expectations both from his performance and his development into a leadership position.”
It’s both laughable and disconcerting to consider all the controversy that the NFL has endured in the past couple of years, anything about Cam Newton would even be a blip on the sports radar.
SUPERMAN FOR MVP!
Cam Newton is redefining the conversation about quarterbacking in the NFL. Tom Brady currently stands as the epitome of the quarterback position, and few would find fault in his passing. Aaron Rodgers has become the model of the mobile quarterback, the ace that can buy time with his legs to extend plays and move outside the pocket. But none of them can duplicate what Cam Newton is capable of doing on the football field. Newton can put up crazy passing numbers like Rodgers and Brady, but neither of them could come close to accumulating the rushing yards or rushing touchdowns that Cam has delivered over the course of his entire career. His statistics should no longer be compared to traditional quarterbacks like Brady or Rodgers. He probably never will lead the league in passing yards or completion percentage. But look at some of the notable accomplishments from last season for Cam Newton:
- Became the first quarterback in NFL history with 5 passing touchdowns and 100 rushing yards in a single game
- Became the first quarterback to have thrown for at least 3,000 yards and rushed for at least 500 yards in each of his first five seasons. He is also the only quarterback to accomplish that feat in each of his first four seasons.
- Became the first player in NFL history to throw for 35 touchdowns and rush for 10 touchdowns in the same season.
- Tied Steve Young’s NFL record for most career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 43. Young took fifteen seasons to accumulate that tally. Newton did it in his fifth season.
In 2010, Cam Newton was the best player in college football on the best team in college football. He currently stands as the best player in professional football. All that is left is for him to win the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 51. Maybe that will finally silence the doubters.
SUPER BOWL OR BUST?
Cam’s storybook season ended on a sour note. Not only did he and the Panthers get embarrassed in the Super Bowl, but more controversy surfaced as folks criticized Cam for how he handled himself in the postgame interview. Some empathized with him having to gather himself so soon after a crushing defeat. Others viewed him as petulant in his postgame press conference, attacking his leadership and maturity.
But will Cam take the bitter taste of the Super Bowl defeat and turn it into another successful season for the Panthers? Can he channel the disappointment and criticism from last year as further motivation to prove the naysayers and critics wrong? Based on his past track record, I wouldn’t bet against Cam Newton.
Andy Smith has been working as a professional artist since 1991. Mostly working in the field of comic books for major publishers such as Marvel, DC, Image, Acclaim and Cross Gen Ent. Not content with just comic book projects Andy has also done a variety of commercial jobs for clients such as Bally’s Total Fitness, Real Song Records, The Idaho Potato Commission and Fidelity Investments to name a few. Andy is also the best selling author of “Drawing Dynamic Comics” published by Watson-Guptill in 2000. The book is currently in it’s seventh printing. Andy’s second book “Drawing American Manga Super-heroes” was published by Watson-Gutptill in 2007. Learn more at Andy Smith Art.