Who is this imposter and what happened to the real Cam Newton?
That question must have been asked a million times after Thursday night’s disaster at Bank of America Stadium, where the Carolina Panthers fell to 0-2 on the season.
A week after getting beat by the Los Angeles Rams, the Panthers’ star quarterback stumbled around the field lethargically, missing throws and making bad decisions against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s one thing to get beat up in the season opener by the reigning NFC champion Rams, but it’s something else entirely to get shutdown and embarrassed at home by struggling quarterback Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers.
The Panthers are running out of excuses to explain away Newton’s dramatic dip in production.
In a league where quarterbacks are comfortably playing into their 40s, some are pondering a life outside of football around age 30.
Former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was forced to call it quits before the start of the season after a short and injury-plagued career.
While Newton never mentioned the word retirement, he had some interesting post-game comments that could be looked back on in the future as steering the conversation in that direction.
“I have to be better,” Newton said, via ESPN.com. “No matter what physical condition I’m in. No matter what, foot, shoulder … I didn’t get the job done, and it’s frustrating. I wish I could say something other than that, but that’s the fact. I’m a brutally honest person with people, and I’m a brutally honest person with myself. And it’s time for me to look myself in the mirror and do some real soul-searching, because I had opportunities tonight and I didn’t get it done.”
What will Newton see when taking that long, honest look in the mirror? What are the Panthers seeing right now?
There is no hiding the fact that Newton hasn’t looked like himself. Forget about the bizarre fashion sense and playful interactions off the field.
I’m strictly talking about the Superman posing, nonstop Dabbing and consistent heckling of the opposing team; that larger-than-life personality that loved every waking second of football and treated his occupation like a 60-minute playground session.
What ever happened to that guy?
The Panthers looked completely disinterested in attempting to run the football against the Buccaneers.
Newton dropped back to pass 50 times for only 24 completions, 333 yards and zero touchdowns. Even more troubling was the fact that he only attempted to run the ball twice for no yards.
It wasn’t like the Buccaneers didn’t offer up any running lanes to gash their defense, either. No, Newton made a conscientious effort to stay in the pocket and use his arm instead of his legs.
That sort of decision-making is reminiscent of a player that is trying not to exacerbate an injury more so than someone just having a bad night.
Like Luck, Newton has suffered multiple years playing behind a shoddy line with limited offensive weapons, which has led to a long list of injuries.
When he wasn’t Dabbing and dancing in the opponent’s end zone, he was making snow angels in the turf after getting knocked around in the pocket like the inside of a Pinball machine.
But even in moments of distress, Newton still wore that cheeky, radiating smile on his face every time he picked himself up off the ground. He loved the game.
Maybe he still loves the game, or maybe like Luck and former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, the love for the game has been beaten out of him.
Newton has lost in his last eight consecutive starts at quarterback, and he has thrown zero touchdown passes and three interceptions in his last four games.
That isn’t to suggest he doesn’t own his share of the blame for the punishment his body has taken over the years. He has long had the issue of holding onto the ball for too long in the pocket, which often leads to disastrous consequences.
More importantly, however, those compounding consequences have led him down a road of rapid regression.
It’s hard to believe the quarterback getting beat out by Winston on Thursday Night Football was the same player that won League MVP and led the Panthers to a 15-1 season and Super Bowl appearance in 2015.
That guy has been on a milk carton ever since Super Bowl 50, when he was sacked six times and shut down by the Denver Broncos defense.
Present-day Newton has the third-worst completion percentage (56.2) and fifth-worst QBR (23.1) in the league after two games. He also has the Panthers winless with a strong likelihood of missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
There is no turning the ship around without Newton running into a phone booth and emerging back out as Super Cam. That’s assuming that magical place even exists anymore.
Every overthrown and underthrown pass, along with every laborious rushing attempt, is steadily building a case that the present-day version is the real Cam Newton—a former generational talent ripped from the abilities that once made him so special.