CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 11: Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers sits on the sidelines during the game against the Atlanta Falcons as time expires at Bank of America Stadium on December 11, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Cam Newton had a chance to say "I told you so" to his pre-draft critics. Instead, he blamed Jamarcus Russell and Vince Young. Here's why that was sad and stupid.
Tim Tebow commands more attention right now, but the ESPN The Magazine's "Next" issue has Cam Newton on its cover. Despite the criticisms of Bristol's love affair with Tebow -- which is really about America's obsession -- they know the deal. There's a futuristic, record-breaking superstar in Charlotte, and his time is around the corner.
But right now, his present remains an extension of his past. Newton avoided the media most of the season, so it's almost like the movie about his life cut after the draft and resumed with Peyton Manning behind him on the all-time passing yardage list for rookies. Right next to him on rushing touchdowns for rookies? Barry Sanders.
Cam has exceeded every reasonable expectation of him this season. He has also exposed his unreasonable critics, those who would stutter as they tried to defend themselves now. His 15-game career is enough to hold lots of feet to fires about the lingering barriers for black quarterbacks on all levels, obstacles that have been overlooked for years.
Go back and find what gave so many pause about such a spectacular and accomplished talent. You'll find much of it was built on one thing: nothing at all. And as long as people purport themselves as experts, they must explain being that wrong in such a familiar, problematic way. If mentally slow with a poor work ethic sounded racist in the past, someone needs to explain why baselessly saying the same in 2011 was somehow different.
But instead, Cam blames that on Jamarcus Russell and Vince Young?
In his feature on Newton, David Fleming mentioned Cam's affection for Drake's music. As if that wasn't bad enough, Newton offered a silly response to Warren Moon's belief that much of the criticism of Newton going into the 2011 NFL Draft stemmed from racism.
"But I can't sit up here and look at it like, oh man, my critics are racist," Newton says. "I blame JaMarcus Russell and to some degree Vince Young. If you have the opportunity to make that kind of money doing something you love to do, why would you screw it up? I'm trying to be a trailblazer. If Baylor's Robert Griffin decides to come out, I want people to say 'He can be the next Cam Newton' instead of 'He's gonna be the next JaMarcus Russell.'"
Never mind that the massive, athletic Andrew Luck seems more similar to Newton than the spindly Griffin, in spite of the unwritten rule that such comparisons aren't allowed.
The real danger is in the foolishness of the quote and its underlying sadness. It's stupid because the knocks on Cam were based in the same madness that sent his mentor, Moon, to Canada seven years before Russell was born. And it's heartbreaking because, in spite of the progress the world claims it has made with regards to race, the young man who could be the NFL's future blamed his own unfair treatment on two men who had to fight the same battles.
Make no mistake: Russell has been an unequivocal failure, and Young didn't live up to what's expected of the third pick in any draft. But neither's shortcomings had anything to do with the other's. Young, as far as we know, doesn't have a penchant for codeine cough syrup, nor did he lose his father figure in his second year in the league. Russell, though he isn't wrapped so tight, doesn't suffer from Vince's particular type of sensitivity. The only common link between them was being mishandled, Russell by the Raiders running schemes ill-suited for him and Young by a head coach who never got over the fact his quarterback was forced upon him by his owner.
These are pitfalls, for one reason or another, Newton was fortunate enough to avoid. Cam's father, Cecil Newton, may have broken NCAA rules, but he's an integral part of Cam's support system, one stronger than anything Russell or Young had. Newton's franchises gave him weapons to play with -- great receiving tight ends, in particular -- and his coaches and ownership have built the Panthers around him. His success is a top priority. Without those things, there's a chance the next hotshot quarterback would blame Cam Newton for making him look bad.
Newton was often compared to Russell and Young, even Akili Smith. The only thread linking all three was race. Newton's ability to absorb a pro-style offense after years in the spread was questioned, even though Sam Bradford, the previous No. 1 pick made the same adjustment to positive reviews. His work ethic was questioned, as if a man could simply roll out of bed and have the best season ever for a college quarterback.
For those keeping score at home, that's a trifecta: dumb, lazy and just like the others. For more, there's Nolan Nawrocki's absurd takedown, centered around Cam's purported inability to lead, and the belief much of the league agreed with him. This was transparent, textbook racism, the same rap guys from Marlin Briscoe to Joe Gilliam to Doug Williams fought.
How else would one explain the gulf between pre-draft fears he wouldn't be smart enough to pick up an NFL offense and current teammate Jeremy Shockey's observation that Cam seems "one step ahead of the game mentally"? How could so many think he wouldn't put in the requisite effort for success when he'd won championships on two levels in consecutive seasons and immediately began honing his skills with quarterback coach George Whitfield after the 2010 football season? Or how, in spite of winning a national title on a team with just four 2011 draft picks -- two were seventh-rounders -- Cam wasn't afforded the title of "winner" like Tebow, his former college teammate? Blaine Gabbert, who has looked absolutely lost at times and also played in a spread offense, was believed to be smarter than Cam? How would one know that with such certainty?
Don't forget: this wasn't the first time someone inexplicably deemed Newton couldn't play quarterback for reasons that must range from silly to nonexistent. Rodney Garner, Georgia's recruiting coordinator, unequivocally told Newton's high school coaches Newton would never play quarterback in the SEC. Instead, the Bulldogs signed Logan Gray, a quarterback from Missouri termed by Rivals as a "dual-threat" quarterback, to run his pro-style attack. Richt offered Cam the chance to play tight end -- a position switch that harkens the bad ol' days -- and probably cost himself a national championship.
Then there's Newton's peculiar time at Florida, where some say Newton outplayed Tebow in the spring of 2007, before he transferred, largely because he would never start over John Brantley. You read that right.
Given all that he personally overcame to get to the NFL, it was shocking to hear Cam give shelter to the indefensible at Russell and Young's expense. Some of these same judgments were made about him when Russell was at LSU. And given how many of the white "dual-threat" quarterbacks in his class were trusted to play with their arms, compared to the black ones who weren't, it's safe to say Newton wasn't the only one.
Cam may have given them an escape, a chance to hide behind coded language and passive-aggressive assertions. But the rest of us don't have to. In fact, given how much bigger it is than one man and one era, we can't let it slide.
Newton has succeeded because he is singular, incomparable to anyone I can remember. He has flourished without having his offense dumbed down like Denver did for Tebow, a second-year quarterback. His force of personality revived the career of Steve Smith, who went from trying to get Ron Rivera to release him after the lockout to being Cam Newton's biggest fan. He's still making the transition from years in spread offenses -- check how often he throws off his back foot -- but those concerned with how quickly he could pick up Carolina's scheme (like me) need not worry. And he has demonstrated one of the most common traits of exceptional athletes: an overpowering hatred of losing. He is the talent, star and competitor he was in college, regardless of what reason one could have for not seeing it coming.
So shame on Newton for blaming a decades-long problem on men born in the 1980s. Their problems are their own like his belonged to him. But luckily for Newton, when some moron uses his words to slam another black quarterback, I won't blame him for their stupidity. Just as Cam would have been slammed regardless of who failed before him, those people didn't need an excuse to say how they truly feel.
And I don't need Cam's permission to do the same. Instead of protecting the foolish, now is the time to make them to explain themselves.