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Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton at peace with past, unsure about future 

Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE — From the moment Cam Newton walked back in the door for his second stint with the Panthers, things were different.

The coach was different. The general manager was different. The locker room was different.

And if Monday was the last time we see him in Charlotte — and it's possible that it was — the biggest difference might have been in Newton himself.

In a press conference at the end of a disappointing 5-12 campaign, which saw him reduced to a bit player (he had one snap in each of the final two games), the former league MVP offered perspective on his own situation, and what's happening here.

As Newton has since he returned in November, he put the emphasis on winning, and wasn't going to get bogged down in minutiae like whether he should have been on the field for a fourth-and-inches sneak in Sunday's season-finale against the Buccaneers.

Make no mistake, he's still confident in himself — "I know my skill-set is way better than a fourth-and-inches type of person," he said flatly.

But that's no longer the most important thing, and he's come to understand that.

Asked simply if he was glad he returned to the team that drafted him first overall in 2011, but in a far different circumstance, Newton offered a perspective he might not have had 11 years ago.

"Absolutely. Absolutely," he replied. "I think everything in life, as you meditate and you find out about yourself, everything in life you don't know what it is while you're going through it. The whole synopsis of everything, I don't necessarily know. But it was needed for me to come back. I think I got closure for a lot of different things, and yeah, I think it was very meaningful for my life and my career.

"I've learned so much about myself, this team, this city. And I think it was very purposeful."

Newton spoke at length about the differences in himself earlier in his career to now, even if that wasn't the original intent of the questions. This time around was not about other people's narratives about Newton. It was about him telling his story the way he wanted.

He talked about the importance of relationships, of knowing everyone's name. Since he's returned, groundskeepers who weren't sure he knew who they were have had running jokes with him. Security guards have been surprised by not just fist-bumps on the way to practice but also meaningful conversations.

And a collection of young teammates, most of whom only remember the former MVP version of Cam Newton from highlight reels, have learned what it's like to be a pro.

They see the way he prepares, and the Newton that goes beyond the headlines.

There were also plenty of headlines to be gleaned Monday, including the fact he'd be happy to be a backup quarterback, but only for a winner, and that he feels like he's still capable of playing at a high level.

But this second version of Newton in Carolina wasn't getting caught up in surface-level Newton stuff.

The first time through, things like hats and outfits and celebrations were a thing. So were record-breaking numbers. Those were low-hanging fruit. Now, both have been replaced by things more meaningful.

He talked about relationships being the "most fruitful" part of this time, knowing many of them were "battered," but quickly saying "they're not battered no more."

If he never plays another down here, this time back will allow his legacy here to survive intact. That wasn't a given when he left prior to the 2020 season, for a year in New England. There were some hurt feelings that needed time to heal. Newton's not the first person to go through that with the Panthers. But now, he's in a better place with the organization. And with himself.

Newton mentioned being aware that all eyes were on him, which is why he handled himself the way he did.

He's brought a clear and tangible energy to the practice field. He's a model for how to work in the classroom, learning a new offense on the fly, and then a variation on it suddenly when they fired an offensive coordinator after the bye.

Cam Newton pregame huddle

Of course, Newton wasn't playing particularly well for most of his second stint, which makes this a complicated relationship.

The Panthers could use someone with the wisdom he's earned. They could also use someone who is better at passing the football, and he wasn't after the Washington game. That day was the synthesis of the past and the present, his best game against his old coach, but a loss for the current team, which happened when things not relating to him fell apart.

Newton was asked Monday about the identity of this Panthers team, and he offered his thoughts. He referred to the old story about the levels of commitment of the pig and the chicken in terms of their role in creating breakfast.

"I don't think a lot of guys really bought into it," he said. "And when I say guys, I'm not throwing anybody under the bus. I won't do that. But buying in isn't just verbally committing. Buying in is being the pig and not the chicken. . . . It's the commitment level, it's the actions. Your level of commitment Wednesday through Saturday through Sunday, in-game adjustments, the really, attention to details.

"But when you see a locker room like that, it starts with not only the players, but it goes to the coaches. Not only the coaches, but the personnel. Not only the personnel but the people in the top office. So it's a trickle effect.

"Guys did do it, and you saw it in their play. But consistently that wasn't it. And I'm one of those guys. We need to do it. But when you really remove all type of doubt and say this is how we're going to rock and roll and do it, it was a thing of beauty. But moving forward, that has to shift to more of everyone buying in more or less than some people buying in."

It wasn't necessarily a critique, as much as it was a road map.

But it was a path he was able to see — and show — this time through.

Even if he doesn't get to follow it to the destination he and others might prefer.

Cam Newton tunnel walkout

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