CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton took the snap in the shotgun, then, like he’d been shot from a cannon, launched his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame into the air from the 3-yard line and sailed parallel to the ground into the end zone.
The Carolina Panthers’ then-rookie quarterback quickly untangled himself from the pile of humanity and went to one knee and into a mock “air guitar” celebration of his first NFL rushing touchdown.
The flag came out. Unsportsmanlike conduct (celebration rules were different back then).
Penalty aside, that moment sent a message that then-left tackle Jordan Gross will never forget.
“That was when I knew we had something different,” Gross said. “I had never seen it before on anybody’s team. Cam Newton’s swagger and the energy he can bring [to] the whole team started to show up that day.”
This was Sept. 11, 2011, Newton’s NFL debut against the Arizona Cardinals, in the same stadium where, eight months earlier, he had led Auburn to the national championship.
The Panthers didn’t know what they had in a quarterback who averaged 13.2 completions a game in Auburn’s run-oriented, read-option offense. They had a good idea coming out of it, after Newton, the No. 1 overall pick of the draft, threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another score.
“We felt he was going to be a great player, but he put an exclamation mark on it that very first game,” said Rob Chudzinski, Carolina’s offensive coordinator at the time. “We felt we had a franchise quarterback.”
Flash forward to Sunday’s game against the Cardinals at the same venue, now known as State Farm Stadium (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox). Newton, now 30, is in some ways is a mere shell of that rising superstar.
Four seasons removed from winning NFL MVP and taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl, his status for the game is unclear because of a sprained left foot. He’s coming off a 2018 season in which he was shelved the final two games because of a shoulder injury.
Newton is frustrated, saying in his latest YouTube video, “Where the f— do I begin?” as he talked about an 0-2 start that stretched his personal losing streak to eight straight games.
He hasn’t gone “Superman” for a rushing touchdown since an October loss to Philadelphia in 2017, and he’s gone nine games without a rushing touchdown. He also hasn’t thrown for a touchdown in the first two games this season.
With Newton tired of losing and being hurt, the swagger from the so-called King of Swag is missing.
The Panthers likely will go with quarterback Kyle Allen, undrafted out of Houston in 2018. They need to find out what they have in case Newton’s injury lingers.
Carolina needs to know whether Newton can return to his MVP form, whether he warrants another huge contract with his current one expiring after the 2020 season.
This feels like a crossroads.
With each subpar performance and injury, Newton could be costing himself millions. But in 2011 against Arizona, from a 77-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith in the first quarter to his touchdown dive, there was no question Newton was the future of the Panthers.
Maybe even of the NFL.
Newton followed with 432 yards passing in Week 2 against Green Bay, becoming the first rookie to pass for more than 300 yards in his first two games.
Arizona’s Kyler Murray, the first pick of the 2019 draft and a much smaller version of Newton at 5-foot-10 and 207 pounds, became the second to do it last week.
“He was one of my favorite quarterbacks growing up,” Murray said of Newton. “Just what he brought to the game, how he plays, the swag he plays with. He’s one of the best to ever play.”
But the promise he showed in his first start has been replaced by uncertainty.
“It’s weird to watch,” Gross said of the current version of Newton, trying to be more of a pocket passer.
What was weird eight years ago was how quiet and conservative Newton was in his style. He had short hair and more of a sweater-vest, bow-tie wardrobe.
Now Newton cuts a hole in some hats to let his long hair flow from the top. His outfits are flamboyant to borderline wild.
The style Gross remembers Newton for in that first game was on the field. The quarterback reminded him of what Lamar Jackson is doing today at Baltimore as a run-pass threat.
“We were doing RPOs, read-option, quarterback power,” Gross recalled. “Crazy stuff.”
Gross also recalled how in awe defenders were of Newton’s size.
“Many times guys I would block would kind of eye him up and down … just look at him as a freak,” Gross recalled.
Newton doesn’t intimidate as much as he did then. Instead of running over or through defenders, he slides or goes out of bounds. The effortless 50-yard passes are tougher now.
In that first game, though, Newton proved to be the player for which the Panthers had hoped.
“It kind of set the standard and foundation for what he achieved over the last nine years,” tight end Greg Olsen said.
For Gross, it began with Newton’s dive into the end zone.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, we might have a chance here,’” he said. “I don’t know that the Cardinals or the league knew what we were seeing then.”