Analysis

Cam Newton's return gives Panthers chance to do right by QB after previous split

The Carolina Panthers are doing the right thing for the wrong reason, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who has paid attention to how they've dealt with one of the most important players in franchise history.

With the heartbeat of their playoff aspirations growing fainter following five losses in six games, and with quarterback Sam Darnold sidelined with a shoulder injury, they have done what few thought possible. They have re-signed one of the greatest players they've ever had, just a year and a half after unceremoniously releasing him.

The focus is now on what Cam Newton's return could mean for the stretch run -- with eight games to go, the Panthers are a half game out of the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC. But we should not overlook the fact that this gives the organization a second chance to do right by the only player in its history to win a league MVP award and just the second quarterback to take the team to a Super Bowl.

No one should speed by the do-over point and ignore it as if it's a broken-down car on the side of the highway, because how you do something is as important as what you do. I write that while knowing the NFL is a transactional business, and that every career has an expiration date. But certain players make marks on the game and on organizations that others do not. They become faces of the franchise, not just members of them.

Cam Newton was that player for the Panthers -- on the field and in the community.

The former Auburn star was a transcendent talent from the moment Carolina drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011. He threw for 422 yards in his first game and 4,051 yards in his first season, breaking both rookie records at the time. He also set league rookie records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season.

From that season forward, we saw him grow as both a player and a man. Criticized early for sulking on the sideline when things weren't going right, he worked at being more present and setting an example for teammates. His infectious smile and personality made him a natural for commercials and the person toward whom fans would gravitate. Cam wasn't just a Panther, he was the Panther.

Which made the organization's handling of his release after the 2019 season so galling. Flashback to that time: The Panthers were coming off their second consecutive losing season and their third in four years since reaching Super Bowl 50. Their record was 29-35 during that span, with only one playoff appearance.

In early December of 2019, coach Ron Rivera was fired, and there was significant speculation that Newton, after nine seasons in Carolina, would be released because his body appeared to be breaking down. He missed the final two games of 2018 because of a shoulder injury that prevented him from practicing over the second half of the season, then was sidelined for 14 games in 2019 because of a foot injury.

Some supporters of Newton created a GoFundMe campaign that paid for highway billboards that read "Keep Cam 1n Carolina." Those supporters had reason to think they would get what they wanted, based on how the Panthers proceeded. Carolina kept him on the roster after Matt Rhule was hired to replace Rivera in January of 2020. The following month, Rhule said he "absolutely" wanted to keep Newton, while a report from NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport indicated the Panthers planned to move forward with Newton as their starter.

But less than a month later, the team announced it had given Newton's agent permission to seek a trade. Newton claimed he never requested a trade, posting "please do not try and play me" on social media; after he was released, he posted a video in which he said "they gave up on me."

Feelings ran so deeply that people with ties to the organization told me Thursday they never envisioned a scenario in which the relationship could be mended. But with the Panthers in desperate need of a quarterback, and with Newton, after one season with the Patriots, in need of a team, here we are. And, really, this is where we should be.

Cam Newton will forever be a Panther, in my mind's eye. And if this reunion lasts for only the rest of this season, at the very least, it gives the organization the chance to send him off the right way -- something it did not do in 2020.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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