In an era of joyless football, while playing for a franchise in turmoil, after another weekend dominated by outrageous officiating, unsatisfying results and further reminders that our Sunday pastime is not immune to the troubles that plague the real world, Cam Newton looks like the only guy having any fun.
The incandescent smile is still there. The funky postgame fashions—now featuring a fez and leather jacket that make Newton look like a cross between James Dean, Morocco Mole and a rejected Kingsman movie villain—are still there. But the wins are back.
The showmanship is also back, in the best possible way.
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Newton's pre-snap, pre-touchdown bull session with Clay Matthews, captured by Fox Sports microphones, sounded like a James Brown intro. "You been watching film, huh? That's cool. Watch this!" needs to be sampled for a club mix. Never has smack talk sounded so endearing, in part because it was delivered playfully, but mostly because it was backed up with a precise touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey that fooled the Packers defense, just like Newton said it would.
Sunday's heroics came one week after Newton iced a win over the Vikings with a 62-yard run that reminded the NFL world that he's one of the league's half-dozen most talented, electrifying and watchable individuals. There was also a recent four-touchdown performance in a blowout of the Dolphins and gutsy efforts against the Falcons and pesky Jets, all while top target Greg Olsen was injured and after top receiver Kelvin Benjamin was traded.
Newton has become one of the few things to truly love about the embattled NFL. He's one of the few superstars who is healthy and playing well. He's one of the few providers of jaw-dropping highlights that come without asterisks and caveats. He's boffo box office for a league that thinks we want to see the Broncos face the Colts in spotlight matchups.
He's also a controversial figure. Who isn't anymore? Newton has plenty of detractors, some principled and informed, others irrational and reactionary, who condemn or criticize him for both things he has done and things that he failed to do.
What Newton did was scoff at a question by a female reporter during a press conference early in the season. It was an ugly example of lazy sexism and casual disrespect, albeit one that has been buried under an avalanche of more egregious offenses against women that have impacted everything from politics to entertainment to the Panthers front office. The insult lost Newton a sponsorship and some priceless benefit of the doubt.
Newton's "silly female" attitude may color your perception of him forever, and that's fine. In the current climate, his insult might be better off forgiven-but-not-forgotten, more of a learning experience than a permanent stain on his character, though that may be easy to say because I'm not someone whose football worthiness gets dismissed based on gender.
No one thinks Newton the individual is flawless. But he's not running for Senate; he's running for touchdowns.
Newton has always had another dedicated group of detractors. The folks who hate wide, unguarded smiles. And Superman celebrations. And scrambling touchdowns. And ridiculous postgame wardrobe choices. And…well, saying they don't really like African-American quarterbacks is just reading far too much into it, at least in their estimation, and you're the real racist for suggesting that, OK? They just want their quarterbacks to stand in the pocket, hand the ball back to the ref after a score and act (and look) more like quarterbacks from the 1960s.
Those folks have gotten the NFL they deserve for most of the season: a league of mediocrities helming dreary offenses with none of that read-option funny business, with Bob McNair and Jerry Jones dominating the off-field headlines with their strong opinions about the league hierarchy, where anonymous scouts contrive to move collegiate mega-talent Lamar Jackson from quarterback to wide receiver and even the social justice protestors are infighting and retreating.
But those folks haven't changed Newton, even after years of mudslinging. Perhaps it's because the infectious joy with which he plays the game insulates him from the worst of the politics and semiotics. The "entertainer and icon" is hardly a firebrand but never a conformist. Blare at him with all the dog whistles you can muster and he will just smile, score a touchdown, celebrate and don a silly hat before telling you about it.
As for his play, Newton the quarterback is not flawless, but he didn't stick to the script and slink off to irrelevance after losing the Super Bowl and scuffling through 2016. Newton cannot be written off that easily. Which makes him capable of turning the Panthers' most troubled season into a triumph.
There are two contrasting football stories emanating from Charlotte this week. The first is of great sociopolitical importance: allegations of sexual harassment and racial bias against owner Jerry Richardson, well-documented by Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim and Viv Bernstein, and nauseating in detail, which have prompted Richardson to announce that he will sell his team at the end of this season.
The second is the tale of a Panthers team that has won six of its last seven games, positioned itself as a playoff near-lock with wins over the Vikings and Packers, and could become the ultimate postseason spoiler behind a quarterback who can be unstoppable when he's on a roll.
The first story should dominate and overwhelm the second, because life is important and football is just a game. Yet we are drawn to the on-field Panthers for obvious reasons.
There's nothing any of us can do about Richardson's alleged creepy "Jeans Day" inspections or foot-massage requests. There's nothing we can do about problems plaguing just about everything right now. So we turn to football for a few hours, and what do we get? Index cards, what's-a-catch controversies, arbitrary suspensions and gruesome injuries that make us feel guilty for even watching.
And then there's Newton, the one player who understands that he is playing a kid's game and that the goal is to entertain the crowd. It's refreshing and delightful. And it gets results.
Watching football in 2017 means bringing race, gender equity, abuse of power, health and safety and just about every other societal issue to bear for every darn player, game and team. Turning off the brain and just enjoying something is almost impossible in a world where it seems every other comedian or film producer is guilty of something reprehensible. It's hard to know what or whom it is OK to root for. It's our penance for letting too many bad things go unchecked for too long.
Newton, warts and all, may be the closest we can get right now to that old feeling of a kid on Christmas morning. If he makes the playoffs as expected, he can give us back that sense of wonder on Saturdays and Sundays. The real world will still be waiting for us on Monday morning…after we've had our coffee and watched Newton chirp at a linebacker one more time.
Newton's Panthers will be the one wild-card team no one wants to face but everyone wants to watch, even if the Panthers' playoff presence is more of a reminder of our problems than a respite from them.
That's because Newton knows how to have fun.
Sometimes, it feels like he's the only one left who does.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.