Cam Newton, the reigning MVP of the most powerful sports league in the world, stands 6-foot-6, 260 pounds. He threw 35 touchdown passes and ran for 10 others last season, and yet there is something Newton cannot outrun, cannot wriggle free from as he enters his sixth NFL season.
And that is the image of him standing over a fumble, reluctant to fight for it, as his team’s hopes of winning Super Bowl 50 were swallowed up by the Denver Broncos.
Oh, Cam. Cam, Cam, Cam. Here we go again. Perhaps the most talented player in the National Football League — perhaps among the most talented of all-time — begins another season tomorrow night in Denver, against the reigning champion Broncos, on national television. The NFL has returned to take control of our world again, to reduce Game of Thrones to a 30-second spot, to envelop America’s consciousness like nothing else. Have you had your fantasy draft yet? Are you in the office pool? Have you made your knockout selection?
And in the middle of it all, on so many levels, stands Cameron Jerrell Newton, who is to the NFL what LeBron James is to the NBA. Albeit with one small caveat. He doesn’t have any championships.
And so once again, we ask the question: what exactly is this guy? Last season, in leading the Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 regular-season record, Newton went from potential headliner to a fully blossomed, bona fide megastar. Winning will do that. And then it all died right there on the turf at Levi’s Stadium, where Newton went 18-for-41, no touchdowns, one interception and three turnovers. His passer rating was a gruesome 55.4, which is about the same amount of effort he gave trying to recover that fumble in the fourth quarter’s final minutes.
He half-assed it, folks. Plain and simple.
So here’s what I want to know: is Newton merely a frontrunner, or is he a truly fierce competitor? And let’s not make excuses for him. Guys like Newton are always worthy of skepticism because they are the biggest, fastest and strongest… until they aren’t. That’s when competition becomes about something else, something unmeasurable, and Newton failed miserably in February on the biggest stage in sports.
Seriously. How good is Newton’s makeup? Do we really know? The early part of Newton’s career was marked by petulance, which he allegedly grew out of. Then he lost the Super Bowl in unsightly fashion and was, well, petulant. Failure has a way of reducing someone to his smallest self, and Newton regressed to his early years in the aftermath of a beating from the Denver defense.
Now comes the real the test, the challenge to be resilient, the year after. It’s not the mistake that matters. It’s what you do after it. Kelvin Benjamin has returned to the Carolina lineup. Josh Norman has departed (no small loss, by the way). The Panthers remain among the true Super Bowl favorites from top to bottom, built around a multitalented quarterback in the prime years of his career.
The celebrations? The antics? Please. None of that really matters. Some people like Newton’s Superman act, and some people do not. So be it. But what Cam Newton’s career is about now is winning, plain and simple, because winners don’t stand over a fumble in the Super Bowl, demoralized by nearly 60 minutes of playing-time frustration and let someone else pounce on a Lombardi Trophy that is still within their reach.
No, they don’t.
They seize the moment.
So whadda ya got, Cam?
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.