Have we already seen the best of Cam Newton on the football field?
Based on several factors, that is a fair question to ask and very possibly a reality that we might be forced to accept.
Let's hope that's not the case. No matter how you feel about how Newton has handled himself over the years, he is a truly unique talent the likes of which we've never seen before. Whether it is uncorking a 65-yard laser beam to a receiver off his back foot or bowling over three defenders on his way to yet another rushing touchdown, it feels like he does something special pretty much every time you watch him play.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of signs that the best Newton has to offer on an NFL field is already in our collective rearview mirror.
Let's start with what we know for sure. Newton is coming off the worst season of his NFL career. He threw for a career-low 6.9 yards per attempt, one of the best stats to indicate quarterback productivity. He also ran the ball for only 359 yards on 90 carries, which is barely a 4.0 yards per carry average. All three of those rushing stats were career lows. In fact, he had never rushed for fewer than 539 yards in a season before, and that was in a season in which he played in just 14 games.
Perhaps most troubling was Newton's dreadful 52.9 completion percentage. Not only was that by far the worst of his career (he had never been below 57.7 percent) but, according to NFL research, it was the worst of any NFL quarterback that started at least 10 games in a season since Tim Tebow and Blaine Gabbert in 2011. Yikes.
Then there is what we've learned since the season ended. Newton underwent surgery for a partially torn rotator cuff that will force him to miss all the minicamps and organized team activities (OTAs) that the Panthers have this spring. The hope is that he'll be ready for training camp, but even then you have to think he'll be at least limited for a while. Missing all that time is not exactly conducive to improving the timing and rhythm of the passing game, although the case can be made that perhaps Newton's accuracy will be improved in part by having a healthier shoulder.
The problem with that optimistic way of looking at things is that Newton's issues in 2016 were more than simply physical. Just ask his coach.
"He's gonna have to rebuild his confidence. I mean, he was shook. Let's be honest. I'm not going to lie about that," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said at the Annual League Meeting in March in Phoenix.
Combine all the above factors with the widespread belief that Newton will run the ball less moving forward and it's hard to imagine a scenario where he does get back to the MVP form he displayed in 2015. And while it is understandable that the Panthers wouldn't ask Newton to run as much given all the hits he has taken already in his career -- especially during his bone-rattling goal line and short yardage carries -- one must wonder if he will be nearly as effective of a player without the same volume of rushes.
His ability to run with power is such a big part of his game. If you take that away from him, how effective will he be as a true drop-back pocket passer?
The best thing Newton has in his favor may be his demonstrated knack of bouncing back in a major way from down seasons throughout his career.
"I don't know because when you look at every time he's been down it seems like he always comes back the next year with a vengeance," former NFL linebacker Takeo Spikes said when asked whether we've seen the best of Newton.
"Think about that in college or even in the NFL. He's just such a resilient guy."
Newton's track record in that regard is extraordinary. After coming on the scene in a major way as a rookie, Newton bounced back from a subpar second season to lead the Panthers to a 12-4 campaign and a spot in the playoffs (while he earned a Pro Bowl nod). After missing a couple of games in a down 2014 season for both him and the team, Newton responded by getting the Panthers to the brink of immortality by playing at an All-Pro level while the team went 15-1 before ultimately falling to the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Even in college Newton bounced back from a bad situation at Florida to win back to back National Championships, first at the Junior College level at Blinn and then at the FBS level for Auburn.
2016 was a down year for Newton across the board. But let's all hope for both his sake and our entertainment value that he has at least one major redemption story left.