CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A fan wearing a big smile and a black No. 1 Cam Newton jersey was at the entrance of Bank of America Stadium on Thursday less than an hour after news of the quarterback returning to the Carolina Panthers became official.
The sound of cars honking their horns reverberated off the nearby Morehead Street overpass next to him.
While rain clouds hung over the city, word that “Superman’’ had returned to the team he took to Super Bowl 50 in 2015 was like a ray of sunshine, judging by the reaction of fans.
Newton was, and still is, the most iconic player in the history of a franchise born in 1995. The top pick of the 2011 draft electrified the Carolinas with his physical skills and eccentric style for seven years before injuries reduced him to a mere human his final two seasons.
At 32, he won’t be Superman again.
But he is a humbled player wanting to prove himself again.
And he was the best option for a 4-5 Carolina team that still has aspirations of making the playoffs in the second season under coach Matt Rhule, one of the decision-makers in releasing Newton in the spring of 2020.
The contract — up to $10 million the rest of year; $4.5 million fully guaranteed plus a $1.5 million roster bonus — shows this is a serious move and not just a way to win back fans who were upset when Newton was released.
“My job is to try to win right now,” Rhule said Wednesday, refusing to speculate on interest in Newton at that time. “Our fans aren’t paying money to watch us win in two years. At the same time, you’re trying to build a Super Bowl-caliber team. So it’s a balancing act of doing what’s right long term and trying to win at the same time. Many times those are the same thing.
“There are four teams in the NFC with more than six wins. Everyone else is about like us. Lots of teams right now in the NFL are trying to figure out how to get past .500 and have a good year and win in the second half of the year.”
Newton returned to Carolina’s radar after the team learned on Tuesday that Sam Darnold would miss at least four to six weeks because of a shoulder injury suffered in Sunday’s loss to the New England Patriots, the team Newton played for last season and until he was released Aug. 31.
Darnold was struggling anyway, and backup P.J. Walker has one NFL start under his belt. While Walker should get the start Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox) at the Arizona Cardinals — where, coincidentally, Newton played his first NFL game in 2011 — turning long term to a player with 139 starts makes more sense.
Here’s a closer look at how this all came about:
Did the Panthers have better options than Newton?
You don’t find former NFL MVPs, as Newton was in 2015, looking for a job. Carolina could have turned to Philip Rivers, but his only interest in returning appeared to be with the New Orleans Saints.
Carolina signed veteran Matt Barkley off the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad Wednesday, but he has seven starts and a 2-5 record in those games. Newton has 75 wins, 68 coming with the Panthers.
How does Newton fit into Joe Brady’s offense?
This feels like an odd fit for the offensive coordinator. Brady’s system relies on sharp timing and consistency. These have not been Newton’s strengths, particularly the past few years. He has a career 60.1 completion percentage.
But before injuries to the shoulder and foot took their toll, Newton was playing his best in 2018 during a 6-2 start. He finished with a career-best 67.9 completion percentage. That success gets lost because Newton lost his final eight starts for Carolina before being shut down two games into the 2019 season.
Brady, who has become more willing to commit to the run thanks to an edict from Rhule, can work the run-option that made Newton elite into a bigger role. The Patriots still believed Newton could play, but they didn’t want to revamp their offense to fit his style. The Panthers seem willing.
The running back had his breakout season in 2018 with Newton, rushing for 1,098 yards and catching 107 passes for 867 yards. Teams had to focus on Newton as a running threat who opened up more room for McCaffrey.
That the offensive line is down to one starter, right tackle Taylor Moton — who began the season at the same position because of injuries — that dual threat becomes more of a factor.
McCaffrey can help Newton as well. Even if Newton isn’t able to make the deep throws he was so good at early in his career, he always has his security blanket with No. 22.
What are realistic expectations for Cam?
The bar has to be somewhat low. In his past 23 starts between Carolina and New England, Newton is 7-16. He has 17 touchdowns to 20 interceptions. But he does have 16 rushing touchdowns, and Rhule is committed to running. If Newton can help the Panthers get to 8-9 or 9-8, they have a shot at making the playoffs in the NFC.
It’s unlikely Walker could get them there against a schedule that ends with trips to the Buffalo Bills and Saints, as well as two games against defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Don’t forget, Newton led the Panthers to four straight wins to end the 2014 season and make the playoffs as the NFC South champs at 7-8-1. They also beat Arizona in the playoffs before seeing their run end at the Seattle Seahawks. So at least Newton gives Carolina hope, if not a shot.