A year after Cam Newton’s ‘I’m back!’ game, Panthers don’t want to repeat ensuing tailspin

A year after Cam Newton’s ‘I’m back!’ game, Panthers don’t want to repeat ensuing tailspin
Video cam newton i’m back

The image is still vivid a year later: Cam Newton announcing his return to the NFL with a 2-yard touchdown run, which he punctuated by taking off his helmet, finding a Fox camera and yelling: “I’m baaaack! I’m baaaack!”

It was an incredible week for Newton, who, just three days after re-signing with the team that drafted him with the No. 1 pick in 2011, breathed life into the Panthers with a pair of short touchdowns in a 34-10 win at Arizona.

For fans who had experienced the magical season of 2015, when Newton won the MVP on the way to the Super Bowl, his Hollywood-like heroics in the desert gave them at least a flicker of hope that maybe Newton and the Panthers were indeed back.

But it turned out to be a fleeting moment for the franchise and their once franchise quarterback. The Panthers lost their final seven games to finish 5-12, and Newton — who had gone 0-5 as a starter — lost the job when Sam Darnold returned from a shoulder injury.

With the Panthers preparing to face the Cardinals in Charlotte nearly 11 months later, Newton is out of the NFL, again waiting for a team to call. Darnold is back on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain. And the Panthers are hoping to recapture some of the energy that made the 2021 game in Glendale one of the bright spots in an otherwise gloomy season.


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“There was a lot of energy, a lot of hype coming in — and afterwards,” defensive end Brian Burns said. “It was a lot of emotion.”

Darnold’s shoulder injury left the Panthers with the option of rolling with P.J. Walker or looking outside for a stopgap solution. Their first move was to sign journeyman Matt Barkley off the Titans’ practice squad, but that was followed by the transaction that sent shockwaves through the Carolinas: Newton was coming back to Charlotte on a one-year deal worth $6 million (or $10 million if Newton had taken the Panthers to the Super Bowl and been named the game’s MVP).

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The deal happened only after Panthers coach Matt Rhule called Newton and ensured the two were good, considering the team had released Newton after Rhule’s hiring in 2020. Newton was never going to learn enough of the offense to start against the Cardinals, so Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady put in a package for Newton that included a couple of goal-line plays.

The Cardinals came in with an 8-1 record but were without wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and quarterback Kyler Murray, who missed his second game in a row with an ankle injury. On Arizona’s first series, former Cardinals edge rusher Haason Reddick had a strip-sack against Colt McCoy. The Panthers recovered at the Arizona 15, and a few plays later, Newton was jogging in for the second-and-goal call.

Taking the shotgun snap, Newton ran right, stiff-arming Zaven Collins before running through Isaiah Simmons’ tackle attempt at the goal line. Newton’s celebration drew an unsportsmanlike penalty, which Panthers players figured was worth it.

“He was letting it be known he was giving a statement, kind of like a statement touchdown,” Burns said. “We was hyped as hell for that. That was lit.”

Newton wasn’t done. After the Cardinals turned the ball over on downs, the Panthers quickly moved into scoring position on a pass from Walker to Robbie Anderson and a pair of Christian McCaffrey runs. Re-enter Newton, whose 2-yard pass to Anderson put the Panthers up 14-0 before the first quarter was even halfway over.

“The energy on the sideline was crazy,” said cornerback Donte Jackson, whose interception of McCoy on the Cardinals’ next possession led to a Zane Gonzalez field goal that increased the lead to 17-0.

Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard was particularly excited.

“I won’t lie when I say I had Cam Newton’s (Under Armour cleats) when I was a kid,” said Hubbard, who grew up in Alberta, Canada. “I looked up to Cam. I used to watch the Panthers as a kid. So having Cam back and doing all that was fun. Football’s fun, and that was fun for me.”

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The rest of the game was largely academic. Gonzalez kicked four field goals against his former team, Hubbard scored on a 5-yard run, and Walker completed 22 of 29 passes for 167 yards to improve to 2-0 as a starter.

Walker said Wednesday he was a little surprised Newton played as much as he did. Newton finished with 14 yards on three carries and was 3-of-4 passing for 8 yards on nine offensive snaps.

“I figured I would get most of the reps,” Walker said. “Unexpectedly, though, I didn’t think I’d come out as much as I did. But I did. And me being the team player I am, it is what it is.”

Walker said the flight back to Charlotte was an enjoyable one.

“Everybody was laughing and joking around for most of the flight. It was a four-hour flight. I don’t think I slept that flight,” he said. “The energy on the plane was fun. I had a good time. It was worth it, and hopefully we get another dub this Sunday.”

Last year’s win at State Farm Stadium was the Panthers’ sixth in a row against the Cardinals. The streak includes a pair of playoff victories, one of which was the dismantling of Arizona in the 2015 NFC Championship Game.

The Panthers will have to deal with Murray this year. The No. 1 pick in 2019 engineered a remarkable comeback win against the Raiders in Week 2, which Rhule called “magical.” And though Murray is 12th in the league with 261.3 passing yards a game, he has thrown only three touchdowns — the same as the Panthers’ Baker Mayfield.

But Rhule has seen enough of Murray — who had a 432-yard passing game for Oklahoma against Baylor in 2018 when Rhule was the Bears’ coach — to know he’s capable of going off at any time.

“I saw him do things on the college football field that made me just want to walk off the field,” Rhule said. “We sacked him. We knocked the ball out of his hands. It bounced on the ground three times. He picked it up and threw it for an 18-yard first down. He’s one of the most amazing players I’ve ever seen in my life.”

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The Panthers beat Arizona 31-21 in Rhule’s first season despite three passing touchdowns by Murray, who also ran for 78 yards on six carries. But the Panthers at least limited Murray to 133 yards in the air.

“We beat them last year, but we didn’t play him. No disrespect to anybody else, but we didn’t play him. We were able to play pretty well the first year,” Rhule said. “He’s an amazing football player. What I love about him is he runs the whole system. He’s out there checking plays, getting them in the right looks. He’s checking the runs. He’s not just, ‘Hey, this guy’s talented.’ He’s skilled. There’s a big difference.”

The Panthers’ win last week against New Orleans was their first since they took down the Murray-less Cardinals. Hubbard believes the Panthers (1-2) are a deeper, more mature team with better chemistry than the 2021 squad.

“Last year was obviously a growing year, a lot of ups and downs. But this year we feel like we’re in a lot better place, regardless of our record,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of games left, just like we did last year at this time.”

As emotionally charged as last year’s win at Arizona was, Burns has a hard time believing the Panthers would not win again the rest of the season.

“It just went downhill for us,” he said.

Is there a lesson to be learned from that experience?

“Don’t let that s— happen again,” Burns said. “Period.”

(Top photo: Rob Schumacher / Arizona Republic via USA Today)