CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A tall, familiar figure with a black towel draped over his head made his way through the Carolina Panthers locker room on Monday as reporters entered for media availability.
Quarterback Cam Newton went to his familiar spot in the front corner of the room, slathered his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame with body lotion, as he always does, and then dressed in one of his signature outfits.
Then he disappeared through the locker room doors, almost as though the self-proclaimed "Superman" was walking off into the sunset.
This might have been the last time reporters got to see Newton in the room he's commanded for much of the past eight seasons. The Panthers placed him on season-ending injured reserve on Tuesday because the Lisfranc injury to Newton's left foot has not responded to treatment.
For all the great things he has done over his career -- winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, being named NFL MVP in 2015, and redefining the league record book for running quarterbacks -- there are many reasons the Panthers likely won't bring Newton back next season.
Here are a few:
Newton has one year left on his contract. He's 30 years old, but considering he’s been hit far more times (1,235) than any quarterback in the league since 2011, Newton is a mere shell of the player who defined the dual-threat quarterback role in the NFL.
The Panthers would save $19.1 million on the 2020 salary cap by moving on -- cutting or trading their star player -- from the five-year, $103.8 million deal Newton signed in 2015. They would carry only $2 million in dead money.
In today’s NFL, that's a sound financial decision.
Newton’s current salary is a team-friendly deal for a top quarterback. But Newton, who has lost eight straight starts, isn’t a top quarterback.
Since losing Super Bowl 50 to Denver in his MVP season, Newton ranks 30th in Total QBR (48.6), just behind Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and ahead of Blake Bortles of the Los Angeles Rams. Dalton recently was benched and Bortles is a backup.
Again, not good company.
Then there’s Newton’s bread and butter -- running. He had minus-2 yards on five carries in the first two games this season. He rushed for more than 33 yards in a game only once in his last nine starts.
That’s not a winning formula for a player whose 4,806 rushing yards rank third in NFL history for a quarterback.
And there are no guarantees he will bounce back completely from the Lisfranc injury, which occurs when bones in the middle of the foot are broken or ligaments that support the middle of the foot are torn. It commonly occurs in football when a player steps on another player's foot, or when a cleat doesn't release normally from the turf.
A Lisfranc injury typically requires surgery, although surgery previously wasn’t recommended by Panthers doctors or other experts Newton visited. So this could be an issue that lingers.
Running back Christian McCaffrey, who had taken over as the team “Superman” even before Newton’s latest injury, will enter his fourth season in 2020 and likely will want a hefty extension with the MVP-caliber numbers he’s posting.
The Panthers have other positions of need they can fill with the money saved from Newton’s contract.
Edge rushers Mario Addison and Bruce Irvin and defensive linemen Gerald McCoy, Vernon Butler and Kyle Love also are on that list. Players in those positions don’t come cheap, even though most of the players in this group are in their 30s.
Face of the franchise
McCaffrey on Sunday was the last player to run onto the field during pregame introductions. That’s a spot normally reserved for Newton.
The eighth overall pick of the 2017 draft, McCaffrey also held his postgame news conference behind the podium in the media room. With only a few exceptions, Newton had been the only player to get that spotlight after games since 2011.
McCaffrey has replaced Newton as the face of the organization. No. 22 jerseys are starting to appear in the stands and on the street more than Newton’s No. 1. McCaffrey is on pace to have more than 2,400 yards from scrimmage and 26 touchdowns. He received chants of “MVP! MVP!” from the crowd on Sunday.
“I was chanting with them,” safety Tre Boston said. “It’s amazing. This guy is something we’ve never seen before.”
Quarterback Kyle Allen said it best: “[McCaffrey] is the heart and soul of our offense, heart and soul of our team."
Allen is 5-1 this season as the starter and 6-1 overall going back to last year’s finale against New Orleans.
He manages Norv Turner’s offense efficiently, having completed 60.7 percent of his passes this season with nine touchdowns and four interceptions.
Allen shrugged off his only loss, a three-interception performance at San Francisco, to throw for 232 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s 30-20 victory over Tennessee.
He’s calm and typically doesn’t panic. He’s earning respect in the locker room with his leadership.
And with Newton on injured reserve, Allen no longer will have to answer questions about what might happen when Newton returns. For the final eight games, he'll get his audition to be the long-term starter as the Panthers vie for a playoff spot.
This might be the easiest way for the Panthers to move on from Newton, arguably the greatest player in team history, because the injury benched him before Father Time. The Giants weren't as fortunate with quarterback Eli Manning, another former No. 1 overall draft pick.
The Panthers were all-in with Newton from the time they made him the top pick in 2011. They built their offense around his dual-threat capability, as the Baltimore Ravens are doing with quarterback Lamar Jackson
Newton once played like Jackson. Newton's best weapon was his legs, which enabled him to run through, around and past defenders like few other quarterbacks before. He struck fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators and defenders who had to prepare for him.
"He’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve been around during my 20-plus years in the league," Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said Tuesday, when it was announced Newton was going on IR.
That fierce spirit remains. Newton wants to play again and prove he can still be one of the best. That’s why he hid from coaches the severity of his injury before the first two games. He wanted to play -- regardless.
Newton ultimately recognized the injury wouldn’t allow him to be himself.
"For so long I played this game one way,” Newton said in a video posted on YouTube a few weeks after he was shut down. “I played this game the only way I know how to play. And at this particular time, that No. 1 that's out there, that hasn't been that same person."
Newton might never be the same person on the field.
In shutting Newton down, the Panthers did what was best to give him a chance to get back to being that person. But now the best step for the Panthers likely means moving on from him.