It seems like not that long ago that quarterback Cam Newton was the next big thing in the NFL. Large, powerful, with a cannon of an arm and a fullback's running acumen—we had never seen a signal-caller quite like him at the pro level.
In many ways, we still haven't seen another quarterback quite like Newton. But to call his unique skill set a novelty would be completely unfair. For a time, Newton was a dominant franchise quarterback. The Auburn product earned three Pro Bowl nods, was named league MVP in 2015 and took the Carolina Panthers to the playoffs four times.
With 31,698 passing yards, 190 passing touchdowns, 5,398 rushing yards and 70 rushing touchdowns on his resume, Newton has legitimately been a one-of-a-kind player.
However, while it feels like Newton was on a collision course to Canton not long ago, it's been a veritable lifetime in NFL years since that notion. He battled a shoulder injury in 2018, missed all but two games with a Lisfranc fracture in 2019 and spent the 2020 season starting for the New England Patriots.
Since Newton last appeared in the playoffs (Jan. 7, 2018), we've seen Patrick Mahomes win MVP in his first season as a starter, Andrew Luck retire, Lamar Jackson win unanimous MVP and the Cleveland Browns secure their first playoff game victory as an expansion franchise.
The NFL has changed dramatically since Newton was at his zenith. Now that Mac Jones has supplanted him as New England's starter, it's time for Newton to start thinking about life as an NFL backup.
Why Starting Isn't a Realistic Option in 2021
Losing the starting job to Jones didn't doom Newton's chances of being a starter this season—if a team loses its starter in the coming weeks, Newton could get that proverbial phone call.
Newton did enough to win seven games, and he rushed for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He also threw for only 2,657 yards with eight touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. While the NFL has fully embraced dual-threat quarterbacks like Jackson, Kyler Murray and Josh Allen, the passing threat is still an important piece of the equation.
Unfortunately, teams have serious concerns about Newton's throwing ability and his injury history.
"As one source with extensive experience evaluating NFL personnel explained it, the current issue with Cam is his history of injuries and a belief that he's not throwing the ball very well," Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio wrote
If teams don't have confidence in Newton as a passer and are concerned with his ability to stay healthy as a runner, they're not going to rush him into a starting gig mere days before their first game.
Even teams with less-than-ideal quarterback situations, like the Houston Texans and Washington Football Team, will pass on Newton as a potential starter.
"It did pop up on our radar," Washington coach Ron Rivera said, per NBC Sports Washington's Peter Hailey. "Just so you know, Ryan Fitzpatrick is our starting quarterback. So that's where we are. We have three guys that we like that all came to camp, did a nice job for us and we're going to go forward with those guys."
Newton obviously would have more demand if he had performed near a Pro Bowl level in 2020, and he could be in demand again if a contender with a run-oriented offense loses its quarterback. Nonetheless, the entertainer and icon has no viable market as a starter right now.
What About Newton the Backup?
Rivera, who coached Newton for nine seasons in Carolina, should know as well as anyone what Newton can provide as a quarterback. Yet, he has dismissed Newton as both a starter and a backup option.
The Dallas Cowboys, who have virtually no proven depth behind Dak Prescott—Cooper Rush, Will Grier and practice-squad member Ben DiNucci have three starts between them—have also brushed off the idea of adding Newton as a backup.
The question many may be wondering is why a former MVP with 139 starts worth of experience has no appeal as an understudy. After all, a team should be able to turn Newton loose as a read-option quarterback for a few series with little prep work and not embarrass itself. Taysom Hill, a far less experienced quarterback, managed to perform a similar function for the New Orleans Saints last season and went 3-1 as a starter.
A couple of factors could be behind it. The first is the simple fact that Newton has never been a backup. He was a starter from day one in Carolina, and while he's publicly not opposed to taking on a backup role, he's never done it.
"I talked to someone close to Cam, and what I was told is that Cam would not have a problem being a backup," Fox Sports' Shannon Sharpe said on Undisputed.
The reality is that it requires a certain mentality to be a successful backup in the NFL. Players like Josh McCown and Chad Henne have had long NFL careers as backups, but it takes more than talent to excel in the role.
A good backup must serve as a coach and a sounding board for the starter, an extra set of eyes on the sideline and a tutor during pre-game preparation.
It's unclear whether Newton has ever been passionate about teaching or poring over the playbook. Some teams might have the impression that he hasn't. Former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich recently suggested that Jones, not Newton, held the mentor role this offseason.
"From what I gained from sources inside the actual building… Mac was basically helping Cam learn the playbook," Ninkovich said on The Dan and Ninko Show (h/t Mollie Walker of the New York Post).
Meanwhile, Florio's source "bristled" at this notion. It is hard to believe that Newton needed help with the Patriots playbook after spending more than a year as the team's starter.
Jones also went out of his wait to praise Newton's guidance.
"Obviously, Cam has been in the NFL for a long time and he's done a great job mentoring me and helping me and providing that leadership aspect in meetings or even personal time just talking through stuff," Jones told WEEI (h/t Hayden Bird of Boston.com).
However, a good backup must also be content with holding a tablet and being mostly invisible on the sideline. Subdued has never been Newton's style, and teams are likely concerned with his ability to stay out of the spotlight.
Head coaches don't want to field questions about their backup unless, perhaps, he's a first-round rookie waiting in the wings.
"Do you want Cam Newton, who has been a megastar, someone who is magnetic in the locker room, a lot of guys look to—do you want him as a backup quarterback?" NFL Media's Ian Rapoport asked when discussing why Newton is unlikely to be signed before the start of the season:
Right now, the answer for most teams is "no," though Newton can potentially change things in the coming months.
How Newton Can Change His Career Course from Here
If Newton hopes to continue having a fruitful NFL career, he's going to have to make himself desirable as a backup—at least for the short term. If he can earn a roster spot within the next year and show teams that he can have value as a depth player, he may again ascend to a starting job.
Getting that next opportunity is an obvious obstacle right now, and Newton's first step is to prove that he can operate out of the limelight. Spending time working on his own, getting healthy and addressing his throwing mechanics would be a great first step.
If a team doesn't come calling for an injury replacement, Newton is going to have to audition like any other quarterback. He must be prepared to show that he is as close to 100 percent as possible, that he has returned to form as a passer, and he must do it without the headline-grabbing flair that we've seen from Newton in the past.
We didn't see much of Newton the headliner this offseason, as Jones commanded much of the media attention, so it's not as if he's incapable of operating on the side. He simply must prove that he's ready to embrace being a bandmate instead of the frontman.
Once Newton gets an opportunity, he'll then have to show that he's willing to embrace the backup role. That will mean putting in long hours of work with little (or no) personal glory to be gained. Would Newton enjoy helping a young quarterback grow into a star, the way Derek Anderson once did with him? We don't know because, again, we've never seen Newton as a backup before.
But Newton surely has plenty to offer off the field. He's played at the highest level and in the biggest games. He knows how to prepare for a variety of defenses, and he knows what it takes to be a vocal leader. He's thrown 35 touchdown passes in a season, and he's currently 32nd on the career rushing touchdown list.
Newton has experienced the highs of being a No. 1 pick and playing in a Super Bowl and the lows of landing on injured reserve and being outright released.
There is little that Newton hasn't experienced during his football career, and there are numerous lessons he could pass on to another signal-caller. The question is whether he can embrace that path—and perhaps more importantly, whether he wants to.
Newton may very well be content to walk away as a starter. He's earned numerous accolades, played on the biggest stage and earned millions along the way. Few would criticize Newton for walking away at 32, even in a world where a 44-year-old Tom Brady is still king of the proverbial mountain.
If Newton isn't quite done with the NFL, though, it's time for him to change his approach and begin preparing himself to be a backup.