When the Panthers traded for Stephon Gilmore, he asked to wear No. 1. The Rock Hill, S.C., native knew the importance of the number Cam Newton made famous in Carolina, and his request was partly an homage.
But out of respect for everything Newton had done for the organization, owner David Tepper made the decision not to give the vaunted number away. Until this week, of course.
Newton signed in Carolina after a wild week, practiced one time while wearing No. 1, and there is a slim chance he could be active for today’s game vs. the Cardinals in Arizona. If he’s active, sources say, he’ll likely play a small role with a package of plays.
Whether active or not today, the expectation is to get Newton up to speed as soon as possible with hopes of him starting next week. That the franchise legend even returned is an incredible circumstance on many levels.
So, how did they get here?
The conversation began on Tuesday night when the Panthers learned for sure that starting quarterback Sam Darnold was out for at least a month with a shoulder fracture. The team’s brain trust was discussing all options on Tuesday, intending to move forward with P.J. Walker and backup Matt Barkley. Then the talk turned to Newton.
Basically, it was, can we even go down this road? Is he interested? He was easily the best player out there. There was only one way to find out.
Head coach Matt Rhule called Newton, who was handling Taco Tuesday-related matters and didn’t answer. He later recalled seeing the name on the caller ID: “Matthew Rhule” and thought someone was messing with him.
The reality was that Rhule heard what he wanted — that Cam was definitely interested. “A lot of energy, a lot of excitement” is how one person described the mood after the phone call.
While the meeting for Thursday was being scheduled, Newton’s agents negotiated the deal with Samir Suleiman, the team’s director of player negotiations and salary cap manager. The original thought was a two-year deal, but with so much invested in Darnold for 2022, it ended up as a one-year deal worth up to $10 million (a base value of $6 million).
Newton wasn’t coming back to play for the minimum, especially with money still coming from the Patriots. And money speaks louder than words, which explains why Newton is making real money. He had previously had some talks with the Seahawks and Texans, but nothing materialized. This was different.
So the meeting was set, and the money was set. Then it was all about what took place inside that meeting.
Tepper was there, as was general manager Scott Fitterer and VP of Football Operations Steven Drummond, who formed a close relationship with Newton during his time in Carolina and whose presence was key. For Newton, it was him and his father.
The divorce wasn’t pretty last time, with Newton taking issue with several facets of it. During the time of COVID-19, when all communication was virtual, plenty of things could have been different. It took plenty of honest and open conversation in Thursday’s meeting.
What did Cam want this time?
The main thing he wants is direct communication and accountability, one source said. If something is wrong he wants to be told directly. In the past when frustrations would occur, staffers or coaches wouldn’t always come to him directly. Newton appreciated the direct communication he received from Bill Belichick in New England and he wanted the same from Rhule.
They promised he would have it.
As for Tepper, he told Newton that this move to sign him was the best football decision for the team at the time. Simple.
As for Darnold, the team is on the hook for $18.858 million next year, fully guaranteed. The Panthers do not plan to give up on him. They liked what he did in the first three games, and they know that part of his play the last few weeks was due to injury. They plan to bring him back, and see what happens.
If Newton plays well enough, next year will be in the conversation, as well. Certainly, the door is open. As of now, there is just excitement. When the Panthers and Newton were driving to the stadium after their Thursday meeting, news had broken about why the meeting took place.
Fans realized who was in the SUVs driving together, and they started going nuts. Honking, yelling, clapping, serenading Newton as he returned. A shot in the arm to the region, is how one person described it.
Of course, Newton ended his introductory press conference like this: “Without further ado, I will say something that I’ve been wanting to say for a long time: Keep Pounding.”
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