Look Ahead — 2020 Comeback: Expect big things from Newton — somewhere else

After two injury-plagued seasons, Cam Newton’s future with the Panthers is in doubt. (Mike McCarn / AP Photo)

For our annual awards, the North State Journal tries to focus on athletes, coaches and teams in the region that we cover. So more often than not, there will be a strong North Carolina connection.

There’s a very good chance, however, that the man we’re predicting to be our winner of the 2020 Comeback of the Year will no longer have that connection.

Since the start of the season, it’s appeared that Cam Newton’s days as a Carolina Panther were numbered. With Newton at the helm, the Panthers lost their first two games of the season. Then-coach Ron Rivera criticized the former MVP quarterback’s decision-making after one loss, then shrugged off reports that Newton’s foot was bothering him after the other.

It appeared that team and player were both ready to move on. Newton struggled all last season with a shoulder injury, and neither the Panthers nor Cam had approached the glory of the 2015 season when Newton was the best player in the league and Carolina went to the Super Bowl.

When backup Kyle Allen went on a mini-winning streak after taking over for Newton, whose foot injury was more severe than first thought and required December surgery, it appeared that everyone was ready to turn the page.

Depending largely, it seemed, on what they thought of Newton prior to the injury, fans and media were ready to write off the quarterback for being past his prime — shot, in NFL parlance — after too many big hits absorbed from quarterback running plays and a shoddy line. Or Newton was just too … much … with his postgame fashion choices and wildly diverging press conferences. If someone thought Newton was too flashy before the physical problems started, they were ready to move on and save the team the trouble.

Both viewpoints are flawed. Clearly, fashion and style have nothing to do with ability on the field or one’s quality of character. And two unrelated physical problems that can be repaired by surgery does not mean that an athlete is at the end of the line.

Newton was having his best season since the MVP year before the shoulder problem became unmanageable in 2018, and he set a career-high for rushing yardage the previous year.

Clearly, Newton divided outsiders in their opinion of him, but inside the locker room, and among the community, there seemed to be near-unanimous consensus of him as a good teammate and a positive force.

Still, with a $19 million savings available, it seems likely that a Panthers team sorely in need of rebuilding will look at an expensive, big-name quarterback coming off a two-game season as a luxury it can’t afford.

There are plenty of potential landing spots for Newton. Chicago has made no secret of wanting him to come there now that its brief experiment with former Tar Heel Mitch Trubisky appears to be nearing an end. The Broncos, Bucs, Colts and Raiders are other potential landing spots. After moving on from Marcus Mariota, Tennessee seemed like a candidate, although Ryan Tannehill may have stolen Newton’s chance for a Nashville rebirth.

Newton as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer would be compelling. Playing for quarterback guru Bruce Arians could be just the thing Newton needs at this point in his career, and he would likely relish the chance to play his old team twice a year, especially after watching his former receiver Steve Smith come back and punish his old team as a Baltimore Raven in a memorable return game.

Still, Newton as a Bear seems the most likely scenario, with the Panthers either trading him or cutting him in the offseason. With that, they’ll cut ties to the franchise’s career leader in virtually every passing category, as well as the longtime face of the franchise. Whether he’s replaced by Kyle Allen, Will Grier or someone else, it will be a different Panthers team going forward.

Make no mistake, however, of all the voices in the outcry for a new start for Newton, one very prominent one is missing — that of Newton himself.

While serving meals to the less fortunate this week, with a writer from CBSSports.com watching, community members continually peppered Newton with comments about how much they wanted him to remain a Panther.

His response was always the same. “That’s the plan,” he would reply. “That’s where I want to be. You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

“In order for me to leave,” he told CBS later, “they got to get rid of me.”