Cam Newton wasn’t always like this.

On Thursday night, after the Carolina Panthers lost 20-14 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Newton held his hand up and took responsibility. He admitted it was on him. He said he had to be better. He conceded that he hadn’t upheld his part of the bargain. He understood that not only would fingers be pointed at him after the team’s second straight defeat to open the season, but that they should be.

He was gracious, mature, pragmatic and on point during his postgame media conference. It stood out because, as noted, that wasn’t always the case.

Cam Newton didn’t always behave like this, largely because he didn’t have to.

You don’t have much explaining to do when you’re one of the most gifted athletes in the game, perhaps the best short-yardage mobile quarterback in history, and the leader of a team that looks like it’s going places.

Yet perspective may begin to shift when you’re no longer the chief goal-line option in the pivotal moments, when you’ve lost eight straight starts, and when you’re getting booed by your own fans.

“Sometimes you find yourself in a blender,” Newton told reporters. “And the only person that can get yourself out is yourself.”

Newton and the Panthers have a problem – actually a bunch of them – and the solution doesn’t feel imminent. We’re not even two weeks into September and critics are lining up to write off their season.

There’s an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and a lack of clarity regarding the quarterback, who underwent offseason surgery on his shoulder and then sprained his foot during the preseason. Is Newton not playing like himself because he’s still recovering from those issues? Or – most worrying for Panthers loyalists – is this the new Newton, only 30 years old but nine years into taking a physical pounding season after season?

“I have to be better,” Newton said. “No matter what physical condition I’m in. 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.”

He didn’t sound like that when he was at the peak of his abilities. After Super Bowl 50, the culmination of a season where the Panthers were the best team in the league but lost their nerve in the title game, I was assigned to shadow Newton in the hour or so after the conclusion of the game.

In truth, there wasn’t much to write about. Newton gave terse, monosyllabic answers to some reporters’ questions; others he met with just a shrug and a stare. He slouched out of Levi’s Stadium soon after, and while what was interpreted as a petulant response to defeat did his image no favors, it seemed like he would be a QB force for a long time to come.

That window may be closing. Newton managed 3,395 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, but his team hasn’t won since Nov. 4 of last year, at which point Carolina’s 2018 campaign began to implode. He hasn’t thrown a TD in four straight starts; all of the Panthers’ offensive points on Thursday came from kicker Joey Slye. On the decisive play at the end of the fourth quarter, they used Newton as a bizarre decoy — and it didn’t work, a direct snap to running back Christian McCaffrey being spotted early and snuffed out.

(That final play will continue to be scrutinized and dissected, but it seems pretty clear that not going with a QB sneak on a 4th and 1 on the two-yard line was a true anomaly, not easily explained.)

Newton couldn’t get anything going against Tampa Bay. He passed for 324 yards but was wildly inaccurate, awful under pressure, consistently getting plastered by the Buccaneers’ pass rush, and a complete non-entity as a runner. Newton, third all time in rushing yards for a quarterback, has carried 5 times for minus-2 yards this season.

The Panthers also had a chance to win in Week 1 against the Los Angeles Rams, and in some other timeline, perhaps the Panthers are 2-0, with everything looking rosy. That’s why you hand your QB a $100 million contract: to turn those tight ones in your favor.

The blueprint is now written. Opponents are going to pack the box and bottle up McCaffrey for as long as Newton and the receivers fail to gain traction. With doubts over his long-ball capacity, Newton’s accuracy – the weakest part of his game – is going to become his most important.

“Obviously Cam was terrible,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on First Things First. “Cam at this point, he’s either injured, or he’s finished. I choose to believe it is the former. This is tough to come back from – 0-2 – when one of those losses is against the projected worst team in your division.”

In Mike Sando’s preseason analysis in The Athletic, Newton was placed as a Tier 3 QB by a panel consisting of 55 NFL personnel. Most of the doubts stem from his physical capabilities and whether he is simply too beat up these days.

Newton is supremely gifted and at 6’5“, 245 pounds, he brought a physicality to the position that has never been seen before. He is still well worth watching. Off the field, he seems to have better perspective on things – as well as an extraordinary dress sense – plus a better grip on how to deal with disappointment. In some ways he is a new, better Cam Newton.

But the old version was one of the best QBs in the league.

The new guy has a heck of a lot to prove. And even this early in the season, he’s running out of time to do it.


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