By Tony Massarotti
Beyond the black and the white, beyond the celebrations and dabbing and superhero antics, here’s what everyone is missing: Cam Newton appears to have grown up. Right before our very eyes. Plain and simple.
Now where this all goes from here is anybody’s guess, because we all know that people can regress as surely as they mature. In 2002, Daunte Culpepper ran for 10 touchdowns. In 2004, he completed a whopping 69.2 percent of his passes for 4,717 yards, 39 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 110.9 quarterback rating. And then, over the next five seasons — because of injury, ineptitude or both — Culpepper had ratings of 72.0, 77.0, 78.0, 63.9 and 64.8. He came down just as quickly as he went up, and he was done by the age of 32.
Culpepper was blessed with the mobility and size that Newton has. He peaked at 27, then dropped through the floor.
Newton will be 27 this May, slightly more than three months after he leads the Carolina Panthers into Super Bowl 50 this Sunday in Santa Clara. For lots of reasons, some of them racial (to some people) and some of them not (to others), he is the most polarizing figure in this Super Bowl. If you are among those who do not like Newton, it is your responsibility to determine why. If you are among those who do like him, hopefully you do so for the right reasons.
I am among the latter. And here is my reason: Newton is now fulfilling his potential. And for anyone in any walk of life or any line of work, that should always be the simplest and most general goal.
Admittedly, Newton’s past is not perfect. After enrolling at the University of Florida, Newton was arrested for stealing another student’s computer. He transferred from the school, ended up in junior college, then landed at Auburn, where he became the center of a recruiting scandal when it was learned his father had solicited bribes for colleges interested in his son.
Does that make him perfect? Of course not. Does that make him really all that different from a large pool of athletes? Again, no. But the way some people talk about Newton, you’d think he were Greg Hardy.
Here was always Newton’s biggest problem: when things weren’t going his way, he pouted. He sat on the bench and hung his head on the sidelines. He sulked. Suddenly his talent alone wasn’t good enough anymore. Newton fought back with his words instead of his actions, and he never really seemed to take any responsibility for his own issues. At least not really.
At least not until now.
This year, especially, much has been written and said about how Newton is redefining the quarterback position, a transformation that is taking place on multiple levels. Critics point to Newton’s completion percentage (an unimpressive 59.7) as a sign of his inefficiency, but that misses the point. Newton isn’t the kind of quarterback who runs the West Coast offense, dinking and dunking his way to victory. He’s a big-play guy, with his legs and his arm, a knockout puncher or a home-run hitter. Any team in the NFL should want a quarterback with 35 touchdown passes, especially if he had as many rushing touchdowns (10) as interceptions (10).
The celebrations? Please. What Newton does is play the game with joy. Stop taking it so personally. The NFL should have that smile plastered on every billboard in America.
Has Newton now completely outgrown his childishness and petulance? No one could possibly know. When you’re 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds with the speed of a wide receiver, you’re used to getting what you want. The Carolina Panthers had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season, and there have been decidedly few occasions when the Panthers were truly pushed, when they got resistance, when they had to dig deep. That has been especially true in the postseason, when the Panthers have mauled the opposition by a combined score of 55-7 in the first half.
Maybe Newton and the Panthers will continue their march in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Maybe they won’t. Maybe the Broncos defense will frustrate Newton, and he will turn back into that pinheaded teenager at the University of Florida. Maybe Newton will resist the urge to sulk and lead the Panthers from behind. Maybe Carolina will simply blow Denver out. But if Carolina wins this game, Newton will almost certainly have something significant to do with it. And he will have come a long way to do so, from some poor decisions in his younger years to the top of the professional football world.
And that, sports fans, is one hell of a story.
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.