The Carolina Panthers needed a quarterback and decided to take a chance on a guy drafted to be the face of his franchise, only to have his original team sour on him after a few bad years.
No, this isn’t the Sam Darnold story, although the Panthers were sure hoping it would be. Instead, after Darnold struggled before finally going down to injury in his second chance at NFL stardom, Carolina looked for quarterback help in one of the most improbable places.
Granted, there were less likely solutions to the quarterback mess in Charlotte, like bringing back Kerry Collins, Jake Delhomme or Frank Reich, for instance. But the idea that Cam Newton would be back in a Panthers uniform and starting games in 2021 wasn’t all that far away from them.
Newton, of course, was drafted first overall in 2011 and promptly won Rookie of the Year, essentially bringing the RPO to the NFL. He went on to win NFL MVP four years later, leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl.
Newton became Carolina’s franchise leader in virtually every passing statistic and among the Panthers’ all-time leaders in rushing. He also became known for his postgame fashion and wide-ranging press conferences.
He battled injury in his final few seasons in Carolina, however, and was working his way back into shape when Matt Rhule took over as head coach following the 2019 season.
Rhule never got to see what Newton could do, cutting the quarterback during the offseason. Newton went on to play a year for the Patriots, but he was released in a surprising move before this season and sat at home, waiting for a team to call.
When Darnold went to injured reserve, the call came and eyebrows were raised across the Carolinas.
“I called Cam Monday night and asked if he’d have any interest,” Rhule said. “He emphatically said yes.”
There were no hard feelings between Newton and Rhule.
“He understands that we made a football decision at the time, based on his health,” Rhule said. “He’s healthy now.”
Newton arrived in the middle of game week with the team preparing to start backup PJ Walker at the Arizona Cardinals. They had time to put in a few schemes for the returning hero, however.
“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.’”
In the first quarter, Newton trotted onto the field to replace Walker for a third-down play near the goal line. He kept the ball and ran two yards into the end zone, shouting “I’m back,” as the referee signaled touchdown.
On the next drive, Newton made his second appearance, again on the 2-yard line. He promptly found Robby Anderson in the end zone for the game’s second touchdown and the North State Journal’s Play of the Year for 2021.
Two snaps into his return to the team, Newton had produced two touchdowns, the same number Walker is responsible for in his 233 snaps over the last two seasons as a backup.
After the game, Newton showed he was still at the top of his press conference game, saying, “I am just floating at an all-time high frequency. It’s almost scary. The conversations that I’m having, the people that I’m meeting, the things that I am able to do.” He later compared his scores to Moses parting the Red Sea, since they were in the desert and the Cardinals were wearing red.
“I’ll put it like this,” he said. “This time last week I was eating a bowl of cereal. You feel me?”
He couldn’t keep up the pace, of course. The Panthers have far more holes than just at quarterback, and the losses have piled up in what will end up as a disappointing season. But for one day, for a couple of snaps, Carolina Panthers fans were reminded of what it was like in 2011 and 2015, when a guy named Newton was must-see with the ball in his hands.