In the days and weeks preceding the Super Bowl, Cam Newton has been sending a message to America. Caucus all you like, he warns, with a smile that lights up an arena, but I’m not changing.
And of course he is changing and of course he has changed. The Cam Newton who will lead the Carolina Panthers into the Super Bowl on Sunday is older, wiser and, at 26, having the time of his life in the prime of his life. He is the MVP in the NFC and the prototype quarterback for an entire league. He is big and fast and smart, with an outsize personality that complements his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame.
If his ascension continues – and the sky seems the limit – he can dab and dance all he wants. He is absolutely right. Eventually, everybody loves a winner.
“I like the fact he’s out there enjoying it,” said John Elway, Denver Broncos general manager and Pro Football Hall of Famer. “It is a game. The bottom line is, it really is a game. I like it.”
This Super Bowl is a passing game of sorts, a seismic generational shift, with Peyton Manning expected to retire shortly and Newton just getting started. The quarterbacks are praising each other lavishly during interview sessions in the South Bay, with Manning on Monday anointing his younger counterpart as the league MVP.
A few miles away, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke and owner Jed York have to be watching all this, shaking their heads, and wondering how it all went wrong.
Colin Kaepernick was supposed to be that guy. He is big and fast and strong, but unlike Newton, his career has taken off in the wrong direction. The Panthers, it turns out, have the true revolutionary, the player whose combination of size and physical and mental abilities convinced offensive coordinator Mike Shula to game plan accordingly.
Shula recalls having conversations several years ago with colleagues about the dangerous nature of running quarterbacks.
“Then Cam Newton comes along,” Shula said. “It’s not just his size. It’s his size, it’s his toughness, it’s his football awareness that gives him the ability to run the football the way he runs it, and throw it the way he throws. And he’s got a fast football mind. As I learned more about Cam, those reservations were less and less.”
Elway said the Broncos’ front office liked Newton immensely in college.
“The guy’s a great competitor. He’s a winner,” said Elway, a two-time Super Bowl winner. “He won a national title. He plays well in big games. He’s done a better job within the pocket, and he’s always dangerous when he gets outside.”
The chatter about Newton wasn’t always this positive. His path to presumptive MVP was circuitous, to say the least. A highly regarded recruit out of Westlake High School in Atlanta, he committed to Florida and backed up Tim Tebow as a freshman. So far so good. But then barely into his sophomore season, he injured his ankle, redshirted and weeks later was arrested for receiving stolen property.
The laptop in question eventually was returned and the charges dropped, but midway into the academic year, Newton transferred to Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. After becoming the nation’s top-ranked community college quarterback, he enrolled at Auburn, where he overcame another controversy – this one involving his father and NCAA violations – to lead the Tigers to the Bowl Championship Series title, win the Heisman Trophy and declare himself eligible for the 2011 NFL draft.
“I scratch my head sometimes and ask myself, ‘Why am I in this position?’ ” Newton said. “A lot of answers I come back with are, ‘Why not?’ I still need to understand more, but yeah, I’m willing to correct my wrongs and say I’m not perfect.”
During his first four NFL seasons, his progress was tempered somewhat by ankle surgery, inconsistency and poor mechanics. But sometime between last year and this breakout season, and not long after he signed a new multiyear contract, Newton morphed into the complete package. While directing the Panthers to a 17-1 season, he became the first NFL quarterback to throw for 30 touchdowns and rush for 10 in the same year.
His style is bold and telegenic, and uniquely his own. During interview sessions, he is charismatic and engaging, his words often punctuated by a wide smile and teasing brown eyes. On the field, he dazzles with an assortment of power runs, sprints around the edges, improved decision making and more accurate passing – a development Panthers officials attribute to the normal maturation process as well as a strong work ethic and sharp mind.
“The quarterback position continues to grow,” Elway said, “and every position is getting more athletic every year. But the bottom line is that you’ve still got to be able to win within the pocket.”
Or like Manning said, Newton is the NFL’s next big thing. All that’s missing is the ring.
Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, firstname.lastname@example.org, @ailene_voisin
Super Bowl 50
- Who: Denver Broncos (14-4) vs. Carolina Panthers (17-1)
- When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
- Where: Levi’s Stadium
- TV/radio: Ch. 13, 1140