After being picked number one overall in the Draft last year, Cam Newton threw for more yards than any rookie in the history of the National Football League. He is the first quarterback in league history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and run for more than 500. He is the fastest to ever throw for 1000 yards; the first NFL player to throw and rush for five touchdowns in his first five games and if I listed all of his accomplishments here, you’d be asleep before you finished.
Newton began the season… and his career with back-to-back 400-yard games and then continued on to pass for 21 touchdowns and rush for 14 more. Unheard of. And it wasn’t like he was throwing to future Hall-of-Fame wide receivers, either. With the exception of Steve Smith, the Carolina Panthers receiving corps was made up of a bunch of no-names.
Flash back to a year ago when Newton was being heavily-criticized coming out of Auburn. Pro Football Weekly described him like this: “Limited field vision — does not process the passing game… Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them… Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness — is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example… he always will test the rules, be difficult to manage and lacks the intangibles to win the trust of a locker room… Can provide an initial spark, but will quickly be dissected and contained by NFL defensive coordinators, struggle to sustain success and will not prove worthy of an early investment. An overhyped, high-risk, high-reward selection with a glaring bust factor, Newton is sure to be drafted more highly than he should.”
The knocks on him were consistent: he wasn’t a leader, and he could never earn the respect of his teammates. He definitely wouldn’t be able to learn NFL pro offense.
A lot of the negativity swirling around Newton stemmed from the accusations that his father, Cecil Newton Sr., solicited money from Mississippi State University to have his son attend the school. But ultimately, Newton went to Auburn and the NCAA’s investigation determined that Auburn hadn’t paid anyone for him to go there—and that Newton had nothing to do with soliciting money.
He was cleared but no one forgot about it.
Yet despite the shadow of doubt that followed him, Newton won a national championship at Auburn and snagged the Heisman trophy. Amazingly, even that wasn’t enough to shake the negative reports.
The big question is: what was it really about? The racism that all Black quarterbacks have faced since the beginning of the NFL? Or were teams trying to downplay Newtown's value with hopes of causing him to drop down in the Draft so that they could pick him up? A little bit of both? You decide, but racism was clearly a factor when Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers, interviewed Newton before drafting him.
The Panthers had the number one pick and the owner wanted to see what he was getting ahead of time. He asked Cam if he had any tattoos or piercings. Huh? Well when Newton responded, no, Richardson told him to keep it that way. He even told Newton not to grow out his hair. Ironic considering he signed the notorious, long-haired, tattooed and white Jeremy Shockey during the same offseason.
Once Newton got to North Carolina, he didn’t get the press you would think a guy playing as well as he was, would get. Somehow all of the press coverage went to Tim Tebow. The pro-life, Christian quarterback who received great reports from those same scouts, but ultimately—even considering his playoff streak—couldn’t throw. He couldn’t grasp the offense either forcing the Broncos to dumb down their playbook for him. His bad performances were covered up by a great defense.
Cam Newton had no such cover. There was bad play all around in Carolina and his shining star was bright enough to lead the team to four more wins than they had last year.
With all of that, Newton, at 22-years-old still doesn’t seem to have a grasp on how being Black affects him as a quarterback. When asked if much of the negativity surrounding him prior to the 2011 NFL Draft was fueled by race, he responded by throwing the blame on two Black quarterbacks that were not only in vastly different situations than he was, but faced the same racism that dogs him and every Black quarterback.
“I can’t sit up here and look at it like, ‘Oh man, my critics are racist,’” Newton said in an interview with ESPN. “I blame JaMarcus Russell and to some degree Vince Young. If you have the opportunity to make that kind of money doing something you love to do, why would you screw it up?”
Even if he wanted to say that racism had nothing to do with how he was treated, why throw two other Black QBs under the bus? Sigh. (Luckily, he will be around for a long while and that statement will eventually be forgotten.)
Newton has been described as a much bigger Michael Vick and who can argue? At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, his pinpoint accurate arm definitely mirrors Vick. He can throw on the run and he can run when the play is designed to throw. The difference is his size. He is as big as many of the linebackers that come after him. He can take a big hit and bounce back up smiling. And after his record-setting season, despite the baseless naysayers, that’s exactly what Carolina fans are expecting him to do.
Chris Wilder is a Philadelphia and NY-based journalist who covers sports for the Associated Press and ESPNU.com. He also writes for Black America Web and Common Ground News Service. He is the former Editor in Chief of The Source Sports. Follow him on Twitter @chriswilder.