Cam Newton upends the 2020 quarterback sweepstakes

Yahoo Sports

It’s not often that a former MVP and Super Bowl quarterback can fly, almost unnoticed, through the NFL rumor atmosphere. But for the past few months, Cam Newton has done exactly that. Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Jameis Winston — not to mention incoming rookies like Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa — have drawn attention, speculation, hope.

Newton? He’s been virtually invisible. 

Until now. Hours after Brady rocked the NFL by announcing he’d be moving on from the Patriots, the Panthers pushed back with a shock wave of their own, indicating Newton would be free to seek a trade. It’s not a definitive end to Newton’s career in teal and black, but — combined with the Panthers closing in on a deal with Teddy Bridgewater — it’s as close as you can get with him still under contract.

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And all of a sudden, Cam Newton has entered the discussion. 

Cam Newton's back. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Cam Newton's back. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Great, not so long ago

Memories are short in the NFL, and colored by what-have-you-done-for-me-lately lenses. For a time, Newton was a singular force in the NFL, faster than anyone bigger and bigger than anyone faster, with a command of the field and a presence in the huddle unmatched in the league. He led Carolina to a 15-1 record and the Super Bowl in the 2015 season … 

… and it’s there his problems began. The Panthers lost that Super Bowl, falling to a swarming Broncos defense, but there’s no shame in that. A team loses every year.

Newton’s critics pounced on the fact that he appeared to flinch from contact when diving for a key late-game fumble. He compounded the error with what those same critics perceived as a surly postgame news conference — as if you’re supposed to be chipper after losing the biggest game of your life.

Newton and the Panthers slid after that; since that Super Bowl, they’ve lost the one playoff game they’ve played. Newton himself grew more erratic, pinballing between coaching philosophies — throw more, run less! Run more, throw less! — while playing through a shoulder injury that shut him down the final two games of the 2018 season. 

Things turned south in 2019

After a second offseason surgery on his shoulder, Newton said all the right things on his ever-cryptic Instagram feed, but when he returned to the field last year, it was clear he wasn’t anywhere close to the same Newton. His throws lacked zip, and he appeared to have no deep touch at all. Just two games into the year, the Panthers shut him down, later disclosing that he’d also suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot. 

Newton professed his desire to remain a Panther. New team owner David Tepper and new head coach Matt Rhule said all the right things about wanting Newton around, but the allure of shaping an entirely new offense — with new offensive coordinator Joe Brady — around a fresh face proved too enticing for Carolina. 

On Instagram, Newton offered a characteristically rococo response to the news:

“Stop with the word play!!” Newton wrote. “Never asked for it!! There is no dodging this one, I love the Panthers to death and will always love you guys!! Please do not try and play me, or manipulate the narrative and act like I wanted this; you forced me into this!!”

What’s next for Newton?

So Newton, who will be 31 in May, is now on the market. He has one year left on his current contract, which pays him total cash of $19.1 million for the 2020 season. Under normal circumstances, that would qualify as a bargain for a player of Newton’s caliber; that figure doesn’t even crack the top 10 of current quarterbacks for 2020, and QB salaries are spiraling upward. 

The question is: which Cam Newton will take the field in 2020? The locomotive with a cannon, or the frustrated, fragile game manager? It’s not likely 2015 Cam will resurface; the bill on his celebrated durability — missing just three games in his first seven seasons — has likely come due. But as long as he’s healthy, it’s likely he’ll surpass the indecisive, error-prone 2019 season with little trouble. 

That, in turn, means Newton could be one hell of a bargain for whichever team wants to gamble a couple draft picks on him. Newton might be a reasonable one-year gamble for a team looking to see what he’s got and potentially provide veteran presence to stabilize their current quarterback situation. (Hello, Chicago.) He’d also be a decent consolation prize for whichever team fails to sign Brady (stand up, Bucs and Chargers). 

A healthy, and heavily motivated, Cam Newton could be a force in 2020. Yes, there are a truckload of ifs surrounding Newton, but he’s now got an open road ahead of him to prove his many doubters wrong.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or write him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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