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.