He flies. He dives. He scores. He shimmies. He shakes. He smiles. He points. He gloats. He grates.
Most of all, quarterback Cam Newton wins when it counts most.
Now, Newton and his Carolina Panthers are headed to Super Bowl 50, where his new-school ways will be on display on the biggest stage in sports. It’s not only his otherworldly athletic skills that set him apart but the way he goes about his business. At 26, like him or not, the self-proclaimed Superman has emerged as the best quarterback in the game, a symbol of the marriage between professional sports and entertainment this decade.
“I’m excited, I’m excited,” said Newton, flashing the most visible pearly whites in sports after his team claimed the NFC title. “I said it then and I’m gonna say it now — it was a process. It wasn’t gonna be … what did I say? Instant grits, quick grits. It’s gonna be a process like long-cooked collard greens, you know what I’m saying? I think those collard greens are brewing right now — you can smell it from a mile away.”
Get used to the colorful quotes. That’s Cam-speak, an accompaniment to his electric play.
“To me, it’s really about how he’s handling not just the game itself but the way he’s handling everything,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The team handled it very well. And part of the way he handles things is reflected by the way his the team does. His energy level was tremendous. It has been tremendous the last three weeks, not that it wasn’t during the season. It’s funny how people always talk about how teams seem to amp up in the playoffs, and that’s really what I’ve seen. So as we go forward, I’m excited about us preparing and getting ready, because in our approach, we’ve prepared very, very well.”
Yet as drop-dead-good as Newton has been this season, not everyone buys his act. Even the folks in Atlanta haven’t forgotten how their native son bolted to Florida, their hated Southeastern Conference rival. There, Newton was taken down by the law — he allegedly stole a laptop — which led to a suspension and transfer to a Texas community college. It wasn’t long before his father — allegedly — attempted to pimp his services to the highest SEC bidder amid rumors of a six-figure price tag.
Newton wound up at Auburn, and when the NCAA botched the case, he got off with a head slap, nothing more. He was suspended for one day of practice, four days before he led his team to the conference championship. There is no evidence that money changed hands, but the wide-spread belief that the Newtons got away with something won’t go away.
Whatever Newton has gotten on the field since then, he has earned. He was the first pick of the 2011 draft, one spot ahead of Von Miller, the same Denver Broncos linebacker who will chase him around Levi’s Stadium on Super Sunday. While there was never any question about his skill set, doubts persisted about his maturity and discipline as well as the quality of talent around him.
But a different Newton has taken the league by storm in this, his fifth season in the league. He has elevated the zone-read offense to another level, a fact never more apparent than in the 49-15 rout of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game. His arm produced 335 yards and two touchdowns, while his legs were good for another 47 yards and pair of touchdowns. Then again, no quarterback in league history has reached the end zone at the rate that Newton has in his career — not Fran Tarkenton, not Steve Young, not Randall Cunningham.
In the process, Newton answered questions about his big-game ability with an exclamation point, something that his coach saw coming days earlier.
“It’s not just the game itself but the whole week preparation,” Rivera said. “That to me goes back to the team. Our situation was that we had no indoor facility, so we had to got out on Friday and [what stood out was] the way [Newton] embraced it. And I’m being serious — he was the one out there running around, making snow angels, flipping around, throwing snowballs at everybody. But when it was time to practice and focus in, he practiced very, very well. And again, [he led] by example. The offense didn’t drop a ball that day.”
In the Broncos, Newton and his team will face their greatest challenge yet. The best defense in the league threw Tom Brady around like a rag doll in the AFC Championship Game. But Newton is younger, stronger, faster and indications are that he’s ready for the moment.
“Yeah, we are going to the Super Bowl,” Newton reminded anyone who cared to listen. “We are not going just to take pictures. We are trying to finish this thing off.”
Because Cam Newton has arrived, and ready or not, you can smell it a smile away.