Cam Newton Faces a Career Crossroads Between Excellence and Irrelevance

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 21, 2018

Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) jokes with coaches and players during the NFL football team's practice in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, June 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Only Cam Newton could get razzed by the kids attending a Cam Newton event at a youth camp.

By now, you've probably already seen the video: A gaggle of tweens at a seven-on-seven tournament in Florida are heckling Newton about Super Bowl 50, so he crouches down, gets in one of their faces and barks, "You'll do what?"

It's the sort of thing that doesn't happen to Odell Beckham Jr. at his youth camp. Or your local linebacker at his local linebacker youth camp. But apparently at the Cam Newton Quarterback Skills Challenge, one of the skills the kids hone is challenging Cam Newton.

Any kid who sasses an NFL quarterback at an event named after that quarterback deserves a special kind of punishment. Back in my teaching days, smarty-pants middle schoolers were assigned a silent classroom lunch detention while a teacher played moldy oldies from his CD collection: Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison, show tunes. It was A Clockwork Orange-level behavioral modification, and it worked.

Newton should have sat the little crumb-crunchers down and made them watch an hour of Brock Osweiler highlights. They'd be all Mr. Newton, Former MVP, Sir from that moment on.

Instead, Newton handled the situation about as well as your basic substitute teacher, which means the kids were laughing at him even harder after he snapped.

The Kids vs. Cam video then went viral, but not as viral as it once might have. A cursory internet search reveals plenty of tired-sounding quick takes on it—but no think pieces accusing Newton of child abuse or anything. Which is surprising. Three years ago, Newton's end-zone dancing nearly caused the downfall of Western Civilization. Heck, someone should at least have the decency to photoshop Crying White Oakland Cookout Lady into the scene, but maybe picking on her is now as old hat as picking on Newton.

Newton has reached the stage of his career where he can go toe to toe with a child, come away with (charitably) a draw and barely generate a ripple of manufactured controversy, even in the quietest of NFL news cycles.

Hooray? Or...alas? It's hard to tell anymore whether Newton is rising to unassailability or settled into irrelevance.

Newton is now 29 years old, well past his "developing prospect" years. He has entered what should be the plateau of his career. But it's a peak that looks little like his MVP, NFC-championship, 45-touchdown 2015 season.

His statistics have been ordinary for two straight years, and the Panthers' results have been similarly unremarkable. New young quarterback superstars have been crowned in the meantime. He should be ascending to "distinguished veteran" status. But he remains trapped in permanent adolescence.

Or, at least, that's one perception. Newton ranked 25th in NFL Network's top 100 players in the league for 2018, so his peers think he's doing something right. His stats look a lot better when he gets credit for leading the Panthers in rushing instead of blame for not being a pure pocket passer. He came within 21 yards of an epic fourth-quarter comeback against Drew Brees and the Saints in last year's playoffs, but that must have happened after the youth camp heckler's bedtime or something.

The reality is that Newton is just held to a different standard. A quarterback like Kirk Cousins gets to sell his services to the highest bidder and be portrayed as a paragon of maturity (despite the Rick and Morty references) with a fraction of Newton's accomplishments. Newton is still the goofy scrambler with a lot of growing up to do because, well, there's a little Oakland Cookout Lady photoshopped into many of us football fans.

Semiotics aside, it's hard for a guy to shake an overgrown-kid persona when he's still vulnerable to tweenage bullying.

Back in real-football world, Newton spent OTAs working with new Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner, whose past pure pocket passers are so mature that some of them are now in their early 50s.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Turner has noted Newton's below-average completion percentages. He believes Newton can raise his completion rates into the "mid-to-high 60s." Newton's new quarterback coach, Scott Turner (hired by his father after what was undoubtedly an exhaustive nationwide search for the most qualified available candidate), wants Newton to know that "checking down is OK." Turner & Son are also planning to add an Eagles-style RPO to the Panthers attack—or at least they know it's trendy to say "RPO" a lot in press conferences.

This is what a career crossroads looks like for Newton: fretting about efficiency rates, taking orders about checkdowns from the coordinator's son, learning new wrinkles from a guy whose last really great idea was "hand the football to Emmitt Smith." If maturity for Newton means turning into just another quarterback throwing four-yard passes into the flat on 3rd-and-10, then let's cherish the dancing, scrambling, smiling, fashion-forward-to-a-fault icon and entertainer while we still can.

Before too long, we'll likely see him in a different light. Either:

• Newton will become an all-time great under Turner family guidance. Maybe he becomes Steve Young, who blossomed in his early 30s into a passer with a completion rate in the mid-to-high 60s who could also still destroy opponents with his legs. Or he becomes John Elway, who came back from early-career Super Bowl humiliations to grow into a cannon-armed commander who could still run when it mattered.

• Or the Turners will transform Newton from one of the game's most dangerous and thrilling all-purpose weapons into just another mediocre pure pocket passer.

The second scenario is far more likely. Turner spent the bulk of his career specializing in very ordinary offenses. And ordinariness will be the downfall of Newton.

Newton and the Panthers find themselves in a brutal division full of great quarterbacks. On paper, he has the weakest supporting cast in the NFC South (assuming Julio Jones doesn't defect to his side or something).

This is a job for Superman. But Newton doesn't rip off the Clark Kent suit as much as he did in 2015. And Turner is more of a CBS crime procedural kind of guy than a superhero fan.

Newton cannot afford to be less than spectacular, not just because that's what the Panthers need, but also because the critics, doubters, haters and old-school coaches who worship pure pocket passers are never far behind him. And now they're bringing their children with them.

Newton needs to be a lot better than he was in 2017 and a whole lot better than he was in 2016, but he has to do it his own way.

Mike McCarn/Associated Press

So if some son-of-a-coach is telling Newton that he will teach him how to check down, stay in the pocket, do all the little things that lead to high-percentage mediocrity instead of the headrush that nearly won a Super Bowl in 2015, do you know what Newton should do?

Newton should get right in his face and say, "You'll do what?"

Now that would go viral. And it would give the haters something to hate. But it may be the quickest route away from this crossroads.

               

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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