Superman returns: Cam Newton’s reunion with the Panthers was a joy to behold

The Carolina Panthers’ reunion with Cam Newton could easily have been a gimmick. The last time we heard from the quarterback formerly known as Superman, the New England Patriots had released him after he lost the starting battle with Mac Jones. The fact that it took until Week 10 for a team to take a chance on him felt ominous. Turns out the only ones who needed to be worried were the Arizona Cardinals.

Before Sunday afternoon’s game, the team announced that Newton would be active but wouldn’t start. This turned out to be technically true, as PJ Walker took most of the snaps during the Panthers’ 34-10 win. But it didn’t matter: this was Newton’s show from the very start.

Showing off the two-way versatility that characterized his run to NFL MVP (and the Super Bowl) in the 2015 season, Newton scored the team’s first two touchdowns: one on the ground and the other through the air. Against a Cardinals team playing without their brilliant quarterback Kyler Murray and others, the Panthers’ 14-0 early lead effectively ended the game in the first quarter. With the win, the Panthers improved their record to 5-5 while Arizona fell to 8-2.

Despite the early offensive fireworks, the most memorable play of the game was an unsportsmanlike penalty. After that first touchdown, Newton showed the competitive fire that earned him his fair share of enemies back in his prime by removing his helmet and shouting “I’m baaack!” to the home crowd in Arizona. The Panthers received a 15-yard penalty for Newton’s actions, but only his most vehement haters would hold his exuberance against him.

After all, it’s been a long road for the 32-year-old. Carolina drafted Newton a decade ago, even though it seems like both ages and moments ago, and he almost immediately paid dividends. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 and improved from there. In 2015, he led the Panthers to a 15-1 record, took them to the Super Bowl and was named league MVP.

In retrospect, the Panthers’ loss to the Denver Broncos in that Super Bowl was the end of the Killa Cam era. Injuries sapped Newton of his effectiveness and the team eventually released him in 2019 after failing to find a trade partner.

It was a quick fall from grace and his time with the Patriots is doomed to be remembered as a forgettable bridge year for both team and player. Newton lost the quarterback battle with Jones this year after missing preseason games due to a “misunderstanding” of the Covid-19 protocols. Instead of naming him a backup, the Patriots cut him altogether. At the time, it felt like it could be an ignoble end to an often-thrilling NFL career.

Then a fully-vaccinated Newton announced he was looking for a job. His former team – in desperate need after a potentially season-ending shoulder injury to starter Sam Darnold—took a flier on their one-time franchise icon. With an extra week’s preparation, Carolina is expected to give him a look as the starter, at least for the short term.

It’s hard to say what comes after this. Two impressive cameos in a lopsided win against an injury-depleted team aren’t enough to tell us if Newton has improved from the clearly limited player he was in New England. Worst-case scenario, we might have witnessed his last dance: not a professional rebirth but a punctuation mark on his career highlight reel.

Even if that’s the case, it was still a feel-good game for both Panthers and Newton fans. Given the injuries, controversies and the near-inevitability of failure in a league where 31 of 32 teams end their season in some degree of disappointment, fans should learn to embrace moments of unexpected joy whenever they occur.

MVP of the week

Mac Jones looked poised and ready once again on Sunday
Mac Jones looked poised and ready once again on Sunday. Photograph: Brian Fluharty/USA Today Sports

Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots. When the Patriots selected Jones 15th in this year’s draft, there was some concern that they were using their first-round pick on a system quarterback. In fact, here’s how this writer reacted live to the pick: “He’s not what you would call a mobile quarterback, and he doesn’t have an eye-popping arm.”

As of Week 10, it’s very difficult to quibble with the Patriots’ choice. During the 45-7 shellacking of the Cleveland Browns, Jones played the best football of his young NFL career. Looking nothing like the game-manager he was during his first few weeks on the job, Jones threw for 198 yards and three touchdowns.

Video of the week

Even without context, this is a phenomenal catch by Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith during his team’s win over the Broncos. It’s even more impressive when you realize that it was the second TD pass thrown to him by QB Jalen Hurts on Sunday. To top it off, it just so happened to be on Smith’s birthday.

Stat of the week

36 points. That’s how many points the Dallas Cowboys put up on the Atlanta Falcons defense before halftime on Sunday. It was the first time the franchise had scored at least 36 points in a first-half since their 38 points against the San Francisco 49ers back in 1980. In case you’re wondering, Dallas have had some pretty decent teams since then. The Cowboys won by a final score of 43-3, improving their record to 7-2.

Meanwhile, the Falcons social media team effectively gave up before the end of the game, which is how you know you’ve truly demoralized an opponent. Oh well, they could have had a worse weekend: just ask Jake Gyllenhaal.

Quote of the week

“Not a loss!” – Anonymous Detroit Lions fan, speaking for the entire fanbase.

The Detroit Lions have never been happier not to win a football game. Potentially facing the first 0-17 season in NFL history – in Year 1 of the expansion of the regular season – the Detroit managed a 16-16 tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Detroit have played better than their record suggests this season and didn’t deserve to go down as the Literal Worst Of All Time. Many US sports fans will never fully embrace the tie, but Detroit diehards will make an exception this time around.

Elsewhere around the league

Mike White’s brief reign as King of New York appeared to come to an end on Sunday
Mike White’s brief reign as King of New York appeared to come to an end on Sunday. Photograph: Bill Kostroun/AP

— What crisis? Normal service is resumed in the AFC West. Patrick Mahomes was back to his best, throwing five touchdowns as the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Las Vegas Raiders 41-14 on Sunday Night Football. But perhaps most encouraging for the Chiefs was that their previously risible defense held up pretty well. Kansas City have now won three in a row and are top of the division after looking lost for large parts of the season.

— The Mike White Era in New York didn’t last long. After four interceptions and zero touchdowns against the Buffalo Bills, it seems likely that his impressive performance last month against the Bengals in his first career start was just a blip. Expect Zach Wilson to return to duty for the struggling Jets when healthy. Meanwhile, the 6-3 Bills stayed on top of the AFC East with a stress-free 45-17 victory.

— The Tennessee Titans may well be the best team in football at the moment. They are now on a six-game winning streak after a 23-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints, improving their record to an AFC-best 8-2. The last two wins have been the most impressive as they’ve occurred without dominant running back Derrick Henry, who still remains the NFL rushing leader. The 5-4 Saints, meanwhile, are still a game behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC East standings.

— The reverse of the Cowboys’ impressive first-half beatdown of the Falcons? Well, that would be the 3-0 lead the Green Bay Packers held over the Seattle Seahawks at halftime on Sunday. While it’s reductive to say offensive production is entirely a byproduct of quarterback health, the fact that Seattle’s Russell Wilson was returning from a serious hand injury and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers was returning from Covid-19 (you may have heard about that) probably had a lot to do with that score.

It didn’t get much better. Green Bay’s AJ Dillon finally broke the game open, rushing for two touchdowns in the fourth. The two scores cemented a 17-0 victory, shutting out Wilson’s Seahawks for the first time in his career. Hopefully for his team, the hand will be better next week.

— Terrible news for Washington as DE Chase Young was taken out of their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with what the team fear could be a torn ACL. It cast a pall over their 29-19 win. If you have been keeping track, this makes Tom Brady the only one of the last three Patriots quarterbacks who didn’t lead his team to a win on Sunday. As a result, Tampa Bay dropped to 6-3 while Washington improved to 3-6.

— They may reside in Los Angeles now and Philip Rivers is retired, but there’s still something reliable about Chargers football. Yes, they still have an inconsistent but often inspiring quarterback capable of ridiculous plays – in this case, it’s Justin Herbert who did this against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday – and when they lose, it always seems to be by a single score. This time around, the Vikings beat them 27-20, meaning their record has gone from 4-1 to 5-4 over the last few weeks. The Curse is not entirely over.

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