The lengthening of superstar NFL quarterback careers in recent years has thrown out of whack the perspective that once informed where QB are in their arc, and how much time they have left.
In 2019, two NFL starting quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Drew Brees) will be over 40, and at least eight of them — 25 percent of the league’s presumptive Week 1 starters — will be at least 34 years old. Of those, only Eli Manning appears to show signs of decline or readiness to retire.
Once upon a time, a quarterback turning 30, as Cam Newton did last month, might have seemed like a significant milestone. Nowadays, however, it more than likely only means that a passer has another decade left of his career. Obviously, injuries and a few other factors can play a hand, especially for a quarterback who takes so much contact. But short of something catastrophic, there’s little reason to assume Newton should think his days are numbered.
Newton, coming off shoulder surgery in late January, is scheduled to throw in quarterback drills, though on a pitch count and aiming at stationary targets, when the Panthers open mini-camp Tuesday. This isn’t the first time Newton has thrown a football since undergoing the procedure, as the world found out earlier this month when a fan’s video of Newton throwing on a practice field made waves online, much to the dismay of Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.
After eight seasons, it’s fair to presume that Cam is right about at the midpoint of his career. Sadly, he’s beginning the second half returning from a serious injury, one that derailed what had been something of a comeback season for the quarterback. While Newton is among the league’s biggest stars, and has put together moments and short stretches of greatness, he has struggled to produce at the elite level on a year-to-year basis in the NFL.
Newton’s 2015 MVP season, albeit one where he fell just short of a championship, seemed to be a realization of the early career progression. He had reached the zenith and appeared at the time there to stay, until he wasn’t. Newton regressed considerably the following year, and didn’t return to dominating form again until 2018, even if the second half of last season was marred by struggle through injury. That dip in performance wasn’t entirely Newton’s fault, as Carolina has been frustratingly unable to surround its star quarterback with comparable talent in the receiving corps. The hire of Norv Turner last year, as mocked as it was at the time, inoculated life into play-calling that had become stagnant in Carolina.
Hopefully that means Newton can establish some consistency in the years to come. As Turner tells it, Cam has displayed urgency in his effort to be back on the field in time for the start of this coming season. “He’s really attacked this rehab, and he’s done everything he could possibly do physically to get back to where he is with the shoulder,” Turner told SI. “It’s been good for him to concentrate on the mental part of it. There’s only so much he can do, without throwing. And he’s really grown there, without being able to throw.”
That’s a significant leap from initial fears in January that Newton might have to miss a season to recover. Owner David Tepper tried to put a positive spin on it at the time, saying the wait would be worth it to get their franchise quarterback back to 100 percent. But there’s no denying that it would be a frustrating setback to Newton and those who want to see him realize his potential.
With the younger weapons in the Panthers’ offense starting to reach maturation, there’s reason to believe Newton can make strides again this season if his health cooperates. Receiver D.J. Moore aims to build off an encouraging rookie season and Christian McCaffrey in 2018 proved himself worthy of the first-round pick the Panthers spent on him the year before.
This may not be a make-or-break season for Newton, but assuming he’s fortunate enough not to have his health be a deterrent for the second straight year, it can be pivotal and set him up for a back half of a career that might place him among the greats.