CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton was in a reflective mood on Sunday as he stood alone at the 25-yard line while Sam Darnold played out the last quarter of the Carolina Panthers’ 32-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There was a sense of finality about the way he later jogged to midfield, hugged 44-year-old Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and then disappeared into the tunnel, well ahead of the rest of the team.
Was this the last time the fans at Bank of America Stadium would see the 2015 MVP in a Carolina uniform for a home game? It seemed that way, especially when Newton began talking in the past tense at his postgame news conference.
“Football has been good to me,’’ said Newton, forcing a smile from time to time. “I was able to walk away unscathed. I know it sounds like I am retiring, but it’s been some great memories.’’
This sounded like a goodbye speech, even though Newton later said it wasn’t.
But the reflection continued when Newton reeled off the names of former teammates who were a part of taking a Carolina team that was 2-14 the year before he arrived in 2011 to within a win over the Denver Broncos from being Super Bowl champions in 2015.
Steve Smith. Jordan Gross. Ryan Kalil. Michael Oher. Thomas Davis.
Luke Kuechly. Charles Johnson. Julius Peppers, Kawann Short.
“They understood what 'Keep Pounding' meant,’’ Newton said of the slogan that the late Sam Mills made into the team mantra while fighting cancer during the team’s run to the Super Bowl in 2003.
Then it became clearer where Newton, 32, was heading. It wasn’t so much that he was giving up on his second stint at Carolina, although reality suggests it will end after the season finale at Tampa Bay in two weeks.
It was that he and those he mentioned grew up in a system and came to understand what it meant to never give up, something the current team (losers of five straight and 10 of its past 12 games after a 3-0 start) has yet to grasp.
“Nobody looked for somebody else to make a play,’’ Newton said. “They just went out there and upheld their end of the bargain and did it.’’
Newton didn’t mention coach Matt Rhule’s process, but he might as well have. The mentality Rhule has been trying to instill since arriving in January 2020 is exactly what Newton described.
It just hasn’t taken seed.
The focus has been on the quarterback position, as often is the case. Darnold was fine during a 3-0 start, then looked like the disaster he was with the New York Jets during a 1-5 streak.
Newton was signed when Darnold went on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, and after a storybook beginning at the Arizona Cardinals (two TDs on his first two plays in a 34-10 win) in Week 10, he has gone 0-5 as the starter.
But as Newton reminded after a game in which he and Darnold were sacked seven times, the most the team has allowed since Week 13 of 2019, it takes more than one player to be successful.
“It takes unanimously everybody knowing what their role is and what you have to do,’’ Newton said. “When I look at my situation, was it ideal? I’m talking big picture. I’m talking over the years, not today. Was it ideal? No.
“But the thing that I can pride myself on is being able to say I never blinked, I never bitched, I never complained, I never pointed the finger, I never wanted it any easier than what it is.’’
It wasn’t easy for Newton at the beginning of his first go-around at Carolina. While his play was more spectacular, the Panthers went 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two seasons under coach Ron Rivera.
The 2013 team started 1-3 before going on an eight-game winning streak that started a run of three straight NFC South titles.
“So it takes guys to really understand their role and their responsibility in being able to execute it every play,’’ Newton said as he shared his sideline reflection.
Newton had to look no further than Tampa Bay (11-4) for further evidence of what it takes to turn around a bad situation. The Bucs had three straight losing seasons and eight in nine before signing Brady in 2020.
Since then, they’ve gone 22-9 during the regular season and 4-0 in the playoffs, including a 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in last season's Super Bowl.
Rhule noted that on a day when Carolina fans chanted “Fire Rhule’’ and booed Darnold when he replaced Newton.
“That team struggled for several years, and they acquired a lot of pieces, and then the quarterback showed up, and [Rob Gronkowski] showed up, Antonio Brown showed up, and now they are one of the best teams in the league,’’ he said. “We are not them yet. We are aspiring to be them.
“I understand everyone's frustration. The people at Tampa Bay were frustrated [a few] years ago.’’
Rhule’s problem is the answer at quarterback doesn’t appear to be on the roster.
But Newton sees the potential. He insisted the Panthers are a good team and have the talent to win even though their 5-10 record suggests otherwise.
He was reflective because he’s been a part of the best team in Carolina history (15-1 in 2015) and he believes the city deserves more. He was reflective because he knows deep down there’s a good chance he won’t be around to help Rhule finish the turnaround.
“We need real people to step up to the opportunity ... players, coaches, front office, owners, and take it personal,’’ Newton said. “Take it personal because I do.
“I want to be a part of this for the future, but at the end of the day, you know as a man, you’ve just got to accept whatever role that you get.’’