On a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, after winning a football game against the San Diego Chargers, Cam Newton showed up to his postgame press conference wearing an outfit that might charitably be described as “Westworld Knitting Circle Attire.” This came a week after Newton was suspended for the first series of a game against the Seattle Seahawks by his coach, Ron Rivera, for not strapping a tie around his neck, a bizarre turn of events that peaked with the Panthers getting their collective posteriors handed to them on national television in a 40-7 defeat.

It was the culmination of what can only be characterized as an incredibly strange year for Newton, who wound up No. 1 on Google’s list of the most searched NFL players for 2016 (and No. 8 in overall searches). January commenced with an inspired run to the Super Bowl during which Newton looked like he might be on the verge of revolutionizing the quarterback position; after a Super Bowl week highlighted by his frank and polarizing comments about the role of race in the public perception of him, the Panthers, stymied by Denver’s defense, lost the Super Bowl to a largely decrepit Peyton Manning.

And now, as this undeniably contentious annum reaches its endpoint, the Panthers face astronomical playoff odds (a win over Washington last night brought their record to 6-8) and Newton—who recently subjected himself to further sartorial-related clickbait by accentuating a Santa Claus outfit with a pair of leather pants (while donating $30,000 to help school kids, it should be noted)—is on the verge of completing one of his least effective seasons as a professional football player. His completion percentage this season is among the lowest in the league, as is his quarterback rating; he is on pace for an all-time low in rushing yards.

Newton’s refusal to adhere to the norms of his position—or even to the norms of fashion—might be why people find him so vexing. He is not, and never has been, the quarterback you expect him to be.

So it seems worth asking, given his overarching ability to generate headlines, and given his undeniable talent, and given the polarizing perceptions of him, and given his penchant for exploiting that polarity through his own choices, of suits and of words and of touchdown celebrations: What kind of man is Cam Newton?

I’m starting to think Newton is fundamentally different from any quarterback who came before him, both in terms of the way he plays and the way he presents himself. He might be the most idiosyncratic quarterback in pro football history. His refusal to adhere to the norms of his position—or even to the norms of fashion—might be why people find him so vexing. He is not, and never has been, the quarterback you expect him to be.

But as his career approaches its midpoint, I’m not sure if he can keep being that guy.

Part of this feeling is based in history: Football has always had a fraught relationship with flamboyance and individualism. And the quarterback, the centerpiece of the offense since the rise of Johnny Unitas in the 1950s, is generally expected to adhere to certain proscriptions. Joe Namath got away with his hijinks because of the era he played in, and because he was in New York, and because he won a Super Bowl, but few others ever have. Cam Newton plays in a different time period, in a different city, and also happens to be a different color, all of which complicates things.

Here’s how polarizing Newton is: Even the reasonable among us can’t seem to agree whether he’s polarizing at all. There will always be the Internet trolls and alt-righters among us who refuse to accept the notion that any quarterback—but particularly a black quarterback—should be permitted to exhibit any sort of individuality at all. Yes, some of this viewpoint—maybe a good deal of it—is about race. But beyond that, some of it is about Cam Newton in particular. Because it is not always easy to comprehend where the hell he’s coming from.

“As a human being, he’ll always be up and down,” says one friend of mine, who grew up an Auburn fan and has been following Newton’s career since college. “He’s a temperamental dude to have that much talent. And his unintentional hilarity meter has always been high.”

Those are a couple of the reasons that Newton so often finds himself subjected to similar loops of criticism. It’s his contradictions. He demands attention, and when he gets that additional attention, he often finds the scrutiny unfair. He appears so carefully scripted, even when he’s trying to be unscripted, which only fans the flames further. For instance: Let us flash back to October, when Newton, wearing an outfit straight out of John Waters’ closet, launched into a complaint about the types of hits he’d been absorbing this season.

“It’s really taking the fun out of the game, honestly,” Newton said. “Because at times I don’t even feel safe. And enough is enough. I plan on talking to Commissioner Goodell about this. But it’s not fun. And I don’t know what I have to do.”

Did Newton have a point? Sure he did. We’ve seen in recent years how crucial the star quarterback can be to preserving the sanctity of the pro football; if you have a lousy quarterback, you almost certainly have a lousy team. There’s a reason why quarterbacks like Newton should be protected. But Newton made it seem like a personal affront. Here is a quarterback who has traditionally run the football more than many of his predecessors, making him vulnerable to the types of hits that other quarterbacks might not have been subjected to on a regular basis. Should he expect to feel safe on a football field, of all places?

Said another friend, who admittedly has mixed feelings about Newton, “Isn’t that like a bull rider saying, ‘Sometimes I think those bulls are not even interested in my well-being’?”

Let us think, too, about Newton’s choice of words in that quote. Fun. Here’s another concept that professional football has long been at odds with: It’s not supposed to be fun, is it? Professional football is a grind, professional football is painful and exacting, professional football is subject to overwrought and tortured metaphors about war. Was Vince Lombardi ever concerned about fun and safety?

And yet there’s something disturbing about Newton getting ground down by the machinery of pro football. His joyousness was polarizing, and it often felt overproduced, as many things do with Newton. But it was also kind of exhilarating.

It appears that the freewheeling style that elevated Newton to greatness in the first place may have to be tempered in order for him to survive in a cutthroat sport. It is possible he will have to become something more “normal” in order to make it, and that pro football’s conservative culture simply will not tolerate his idiosyncracies.

And maybe you see that as a good thing, but as we approach the end of this bleak and demoralizing calendar year—a year stripped clean of any real fun at all—I don’t want to see Cam Newton wearing a tie.

I’d rather he stays as weird as possible.