There is no hard-and-fast scientific metric for this sort of thing, but there has been what I would call “a great deal” of Backup Quarterbacking on Sunday. There is more than one kind of backup quarterbacking, naturally, and each backup is an expression of his particular organization’s individuated terroir and broader methodology. Sunday’s early slate of games functioned as a sort of tasting flight of what’s currently on offer in this burgeoning field.
You do not need an especially refined palate to notice this sort of thing. The distinctive brassy tang of Tim Boyle-style backup quarterbacking is obviously and instantly different than the comparatively refined notes of vanilla and pressure-treated wood in what Taylor Heinicke generally gets up to; Joe Flacco-style backup quarterbacking is notably saltier and more processed than the grainier, gamier, infinitely more effortful craftsmanship of Trevor Siemian; when decanted properly, Andy Dalton’s backup quarterbacking has the look of Starting Quarterbacking, with the unfortunate side effect of the hangover both preceding and almost entirely supplanting the intoxicating part. Tyler Huntley I honestly don’t know about, but I’m sure he’s doing some important work.
It’s important to note that all the different styles of Backup Quarterbacking generally go down like battery acid and are extremely bad for you, but it is our policy here to celebrate the entire form. Actual good quarterbacking is fine, if you like that kind of thing, but for those who prefer a more artisan experience—something cloudier, something with weird bubbles in it that don’t seem like they should be there, something with Boyle-style kombucha notes—Sunday has already been a delight, and Colt McCoy is only starting to cook as I write this. He’s on the Cardinals now!
A full accounting of all the backup quarterbacks thrust or elevated or otherwise Flaccovianly promoted into action on Sunday would, by rights, include Cam Newton, who made his first start for the Carolina Panthers this year after rejoining them before Week 10. It was Newton’s 125th time starting under center for Carolina, but the events of the busy period between the last one and this one—the Panthers cutting Newton loose after an injury-shortened 2019 season; his grim and thwarted year in New England and the equally unceremonious end that arrived when the Patriots cut him loose after the front office reached the collective decision to self-administer the Macpill; the weird video he made with his dad explaining it all—heightened and steepened what were otherwise some notably low stakes. This particular game didn’t matter much, although the NFC is weak enough that Carolina is technically still kind of sucking around at the fringes of the playoff picture. Neither team is very good, and a game that could accurately be summarized with the words “Carolina just couldn’t stop Taylor Heinicke” was not any more fun to watch than it sounds.
As a result, the Panthers had the ball for just a little over 24 minutes, and a late attempt at a comeback sputtered out before it could even get started in earnest. But when they had the ball, Newton looked rather jarringly like Cam Newton. He was not the volcanic Newton that won Rookie of the Year in 2011, or the all-smashing virtuoso that was the league’s MVP in 2015, but few players in the last few generations have been that. More heartening was that Newton also didn’t look like the ploddingly competent game-managing husk of that legend that went 7-8 with New England. Newton was efficient in making use of the parts of the playbook with which he’s been able to get familiar in two weeks, completing 21 of 27 passes for 189 yards and two scores and rushing 10 times for 46 yards and another touchdown. After scoring each of the first two times he touched the ball in a garbage time stint last week, Newton seems already to have made as good a case to be the Panthers’ starting quarterback as anyone has since the team cut him loose.
Which is to say that Newton is in fact back, albeit in the qualified ways that it’s reasonable to expect a 32-year-old quarterback to Be Back. Most of the old mercury was pounded out of Newton years ago, both because that is what football does to the people that play it and because of how, specifically, Newton was used and abused during that time. The version of Newton from last year was still a competent NFL quarterback, but both very obviously not the superstar he’d been and probably still a little bit too brilliant in his outlier moments and too idiosyncratically and undeniably an ex-god in his general expression to be the kind of anonymous, no-fuss backup that teams prioritize. There was still a little bit too much Cam Newton in there, even as there was no longer quite enough; more to the point, there is entirely too much Cam Newton in there for him to exist within the same category as your Tim Boyle types.
This only matters so much, really. Newton will likely do more to keep the Panthers in games than Sam Darnold or P.J. Walker were able to, but Carolina’s schedule is getting harder and it’s difficult to put too much faith in a team whose defense couldn’t get Heinicke off the field. The playoffs are a goal, and goals are important, and Carolina is going to play six more games no matter what. But while Panthers fans are absolutely entitled to demand whatever they want to demand from the team, it also seems worth appreciating what a rare and strange gift Newton’s return is already shaping up to be. His mere presence takes what promised to be a flagrantly, almost insultingly meaningless season—as in, “Sam Darnold nearing return from injury” was literally going to be one of the big storylines of the team’s last weeks—and makes it something altogether different.
It’s not that Newton is likelier to get the Panthers to the playoffs than any of his predecessors; he probably is, but it certainly doesn’t matter. The football is just what it is, and there’s reason to believe that Newton will deliver a few more moments of brilliance amid the broader twilight ahead. But the bigger, brighter thing to look forward to is the chance for everyone involved to write a new ending for the salty-sour bleeding-out end to his first stint as a franchise quarterback. As Scott Fowler wrote in the Charlotte Observer last week, everyone from Newton on down seemed to have forgotten what they were supposed to be getting out of any of it by the end of his time in Carolina. This is how things tend to end in the NFL, because of the steakheaded executive power politics and broader macho psychopathy and multivalent cynicism that determines how things happen in the sport. It is a very difficult sport in which to enjoy anything like a dignified or even decent goodbye.
There is a lot to enjoy in the video above of Newton running in that 24-yard score; even in his diminishment, Newton is still an uncanny and awesome player to watch. But for me, the best part of the video comes after the touchdown. Newton tear-asses out to the logo at midfield, where he plants the ball theatrically. He does his old Superman celebration and screams, “I’m back.” The crowd, where and when they are seen, are just absolutely losing their shit. Newton, who is doing all this after giving his team a 13-7 lead halfway through the second quarter of a Week 11 game, is pretty much doing the same. If Newton was “just floating at an all-time high frequency,” as he said after last week’s win against Arizona, he is here fully out of his mind with delight.
It’s all a bit much, obviously. But if it’s also a bit much to assume that anyone involved was far enough outside or above it to appreciate it as such in the moment, it also seems true at some level that everyone in the equation—the quarterback, the fans, this goofy going-nowhere organization—knows exactly what they’re celebrating. It’s not just what they’re getting, or even that they’re getting it; it surely is not an early lead against some other mediocre team’s backup quarterback. It’s that they have somehow been lucky enough to get any of this again, and to get a chance to enjoy it for what it is and despite what it is not, for as long as it’s there to get.