The Carolina Panthers’ season took an unexpected twist in the last week as former franchise quarterback Cam Newton made his triumphant return to the team.
Newton, released following an injury-plagued 2019 season, stepped in to help a team strapped for quarterback talent following an injury to its current starter, Sam Darnold.
Darnold, who has struggled in recent games and was in danger of losing his job, suffered a shoulder injury and was placed on injured reserve. That set the stage for Newton and his former team to kiss and make up.
“I called Cam Monday night and asked if he’d have any interest,” coach Matt Rhule said. “He emphatically said yes.”
There were no hard feelings between Newton and Rhule, who took over during the offseason when Newton was released.
“He understands that we made a football decision at the time, based on his health,” Rhule said. “He’s healthy now.”
Newton showed that on Sunday. While backup PJ Walker started the game and played most of the way, Newton took the field for a few snaps and certainly made the most of them.
On his first play from scrimmage, Newton ran two yards for the game’s first touchdown, then shouted, “I’m back!” in the end zone.
The next time he saw the field, he threw a two-yard touchdown pass to receiver Robby Anderson to put Carolina up 14-0 on their way to a 34-10 road win over NFC contender Arizona.
Newton, whose postgame press conferences were almost as legendary as his performance on the field, showed that he hasn’t slipped in that area either.
“I am just floating at an all-time high frequency,” he said. “It’s almost scary. The conversations that I’m having, the people that I’m meeting, the things that I am able to do.”
Newton also brought receiver Anderson with him to the press conference, “because I don’t want to be the last one on the plane.”
“It was so fun since the moment Cam got there,” Anderson said. “It’s like a dream come true. He came to Carolina, and then my brother came back. It’s like a dream come true.”
The return capped a tumultuous few months for Newton. After playing for New England last season, he was surprisingly released prior to the start of this year as the Patriots gave the job to rookie Mac Jones.
Newton hadn’t garnered any interest — at least publicly — from other teams since then, and there were rumors that his unvaccinated status, and the NFL penalties that could be associated with a positive test of an unvaccinated player, were keeping him off the field.
Newton has since gotten the vaccine, however, and he made his return to the team where he set franchise records for passing and touchdowns, won a Rookie of the Year and MVP Award and led the Panthers to Super Bowl 50.
Despite that, he didn’t arrive looking for the star treatment.
“He came in, he put the work in on Thursday, Friday, Saturday to learn a package — we kind of came up with some things that he knew,” Rhule said. “He’s a veteran player, so his mind is, ‘Hey, on this play — I’ve run this 100 times — and it’s called this now. I think the credit goes to Joe (Brady, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator) and Sean (Ryan, the quarterbacks coach) as well. Cam put the work in with them and there was a good feeling down in that quarterback room.
Newton’s return likely means an early end to Walker’s tenure as the starter, but he welcomed the chance to share the job.
“It was awesome,” he said. “We’re building as we go. It’s my third day around him, so we’re building as we go, and it’s going to be a fun rest of the season.”
As for Newton, the emotions were as big as the plays he made.
“I wouldn’t even call it the new me,” he said, “but I’m big on energy and that feeling on the sideline collectively as a team started with PJ, and the offense going out there … and the defense getting the turnover. That’s a combination of a great team win on the road. That was a great team that we played, and just for it to come to full circle, offensively, defensively, special teams, it was great work.”
Newton will also be assuming the leadership role he held for close to a decade.
“I’m here for a reason,” he said. “One of those reasons is to hold everybody accountable. I told Robby that, I told DJ (Moore) that, I told C-Mac (Christian McCaffrey) that, I told D-Jac (cornerback Donte Jackson) that, I told (cornerback Stephon) Gilmore that, I told numerous players as well as coaches, ‘I am no different than anybody else, and I want people to hold me accountable.’ I think the thing that I have learned as growth is ‘who cares who gets the glory’ because, at the end of the day when you have a game like this, we all win.
“I’ll put it like this,” he added. “This time last week I was eating a bowl of cereal. You feel me?”