Cam Newton is back. We know this because moments after breaking a few tackles and diving into the endzone for a two-yard rushing touchdown on his very first snap back with the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, he yelled, “I’M BACK! I’M BACK!” The next time he entered Carolina’s game against the Cardinals, still in the first quarter, it was to throw a two-yard touchdown pass on first-and-goal, which he did more somberly; maybe the “being back” was implied now. (Also the first celebration had resulted in an extremely lame unsportsmanlike conduct penalty because he’d removed his helmet.) “I’m just floating at an all-time high frequency,” he said after Carolina’s 34-10 win. “It’s almost scary.”
Newton signed a one-year contract with the Panthers on Thursday after the team announced Sam Darnold would miss at least a month with a shoulder injury and was going on injured reserve. He’d been unsigned since losing the quarterback competition to Mac Jones at Patriots training camp this summer. “This time last week, I was eating a bowl of cereal,” Newton said in the postgame press conference. When Panthers coach Matt Rhule called Newton Tuesday night to gauge the quarterback’s interest in returning to the team where he’d spent the first nine years of his career, Newton didn’t really believe the caller ID.
Newton took six more snaps in Sunday’s game—exclusively the kinds of Cam-suited goal-line packages a quarterback can realistically learn in two days. (He participated in one practice with the Panthers, on Friday.) The charming, torrid pace of the first quarter would not continue. He finished the game with the funny passing stat line of 3-of-4 completions for eight passing yards, three carries for 14 yards, a passing touchdown, and a rushing touchdown.
The eight snaps might unfairly overshadow the solid work of the Panthers defense against Arizona. And you do feel a little bad for the Panthers’ actual starting quarterback in this game: P.J. Walker, the poor guy whose job was, at least in the national audience’s imagination, getting some other guy to the red zone. Rhule even tried admirably to give his starter some credit: “I know we’ve talked a lot about Cam, and I get it, but I think a lot of us would say that P.J. played pretty well today.” He probably did! But sorry. No one cares. Newton is likely to start next week, when the Panthers face Ron Rivera and the Washington Football Team.
Even Newton, the sort of person inclined to make situations as hokey as they can possibly be, rejected the idea that he’d returned to Carolina for sentiment’s sake. “This ain’t no ploy, this ain’t about ticket sales or a Cinderella story,” he said after he signed. “I’m here to win football games.” But it was hard to disentangle the play from the narrative, hard to ignore just how glad Newton’s teammates seemed to have him back, and hard to deny that this team was due for a jolt of something. Before Sunday, Carolina had lost five of its last six games after winning its first three of the season. The mood sucked. “Probably a lot now that I think about it,” linebacker Haason Reddick said, asked how much Newton had affected the team’s energy. “The team is in really, really high spirits.”