CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton opened his press conference Sunday night by using past tense verbs.
He's experienced enough, and aware enough, to know what it sounded like.
But even while trying to keep it from sounding like a benediction, the Panthers quarterback gave the impression he wasn't sure he'd ever pass this way again.
"Football has been good to me," Newton said early in the press conference, after he was asked a question about rotating with Sam Darnold in a 32-6 loss to the Buccaneers. "I was able to walk away unscathed. I don't want to sound like I'm retiring, but, I've had some great memories."
By the end of his 17 minutes at the podium, Newton was asked if this felt like a goodbye, and he replied: "Nah, it don't feel like that."
As with his entire career, and recent press conferences, this one contained multitudes. Newton talked about former teammates from his first stint here, calling a number of them by name and saying: "They understood what Keep Pounding meant."
He reflected on his 2015 season, when he was the best player in football and led the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. But he also mentioned the year before he arrived in Charlotte, when the Panthers went 2-14 in 2010, which set the stage for them to choose him first overall.
Newton was part of building something special. And now he's in this spot.
"I don't necessarily know what the future holds," he said. "But I'm going to look that lion in the eyeball, and not blink."
At once Newton was confident in his own abilities, and at times he seemed to recognize what was happening in front of him.
"We, the whole Charlotte community, we deserve better," he said of the team's recent struggles. "Hell, I want better."
For Newton, there wasn't going to be a fairytale ending. He stood by on the sideline as Darnold played the late stages, watching helplessly as the game — perhaps his last one here — ended.
When it was over, Newton quickly ran to midfield and hugged Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, just a couple of former league MVPs greeting each other after a game. But while the 44-year-old Brady never seems to age, Newton has looked a like a man whose play is not what it was.
After that one brilliant Sunday in Arizona when he declared "I'm back," and the following week against Washington when it looked like he was, his game has not been the same.
Sunday, Newton was 7-of-13 for 61 yards and an interception. In his last four games, he has a combined passer rating of 44.5, with a touchdown and five interceptions. He had a 33-yard run against the Bucs and showed he can still make plays in that part of the game, but it's not working in the passing game, which is why Darnold was playing.
This was not the Cam Newton fans are used to seeing. This is not the Cam Newton Cam Newton's used to seeing. And that's hard for a lot of people. Including Cam Newton.
"I see a lot of guys come up on the stage or the podium in a coward's way, directly or indirectly," he said. "The truth is, I wasn't good enough today. I know that. There was opportunities for us to move the ball."
While he wasn't getting into his own future, the immediate seems to be taking care of itself.
By playing Darnold in the home finale, the Panthers began looking forward, at a player who is under contract for next year. Newton isn't beyond the next two games, and since they're both on the road, it's easier to make the switch back to Darnold now.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said he wasn't ready to commit to a starter for next week at New Orleans, but he also said he didn't want to put Newton out there Sunday for a ceremonial curtain call, saying he respected him too much as a competitor for that.
"I don't know what the future holds," Newton said. "I'm just so let down because the city of Charlotte's been good to me. When I first got here, it was a lot of uncertainty about how long I'd be here. This second go-around, it's just unfortunate, because you put so much work into trying to find ways to win, building relationships along the way. And when it doesn't happen, like right now, you feel empty. You feel like damn, are you good enough?"
That kind of self-doubt is not what we're used to hearing from Newton. Not much from recent weeks has been what we're used to seeing either.
View photos of the Panthers taking on Tampa Bay in the 2021 home finale in Week 16.