Superman or Mini-Cam?

Was Super Bowl meltdown the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end for Cam Newton?

Carolina Panthers play against the Arizona Cardinals during the Wild Card playoff round at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, January 3, 2015, in Charlotte, NC.
Carolina Panthers play against the Arizona Cardinals during the Wild Card playoff round at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, January 3, 2015, in Charlotte, NC.

(Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers)

by Ron Borges

Talk of Fame Network

The most important thing for Cam Newton now is not his recent missteps but his next step.

The Carolina Panther quarterback’s disastrous Super Bowl 50 performance and graceless post-game behavior have been well documented and heavily criticized. As Newton is learning, the great danger of constant chest-beating and self-aggrandizing is that when someone instead beats on your chest, and you respond with two lost fumbles, an interception, a completion percentage of 43.9 percent and a two-minute post-game interview in which you act like a sulking pre-teen, you open yourself up to the kind of heat he hasn’t felt in a long time.

This past season was a “Coronation for Cam,” one where he was named not only the league’s Most Valuable Player but the creator of an allegedly new form of quarterbacking. He wasn’t just playing the position, his supporters breathlessly insisted; he was re-inventing it.

As the season went along, Newton embraced both that narrative and his chest. He dabbed more than an actor in a 1950s Brylcreem ad. So after the Denver Broncos "pantsed" him Sunday at Levi’s Stadium (fitting location for such an act, no?), even Denver’s 68-year-old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips couldn’t help piling on.

Newton had turned “dabbing’’ into a national phenomenon and a controversial act so when he had nothing to dab about, Phillips had a surprising reminder for the Panthers’ young quarterback of the dangers of hubris.

“A little Dab with (sic) do you but too much Dab will undo you!’’ Phillips tweeted the morning after the game.

It was a not-so-subtle shot at Newton’s apparent need to beat his chest every time he makes a play. Having made none in Super Bowl 50, the dabbing was left to Denver. Newton long ago dubbed himself Superman, and in warmups prior to Super Bowl 50 wore a T-shirt with an S on it and a pair of golden cleats with the letters “MVP’’ across them.

He then went out and played like Mini-Cam, not Superman.

After the game everyone from Deion Sanders to former Super Bowl coach Jim Fassel went after him, the latter blaming Newton's choice of pre-game footwear as a reason he played so poorly. In Fassel’s opinion, those shoes were proof he’d “already become soft,’’ a victim of the sometimes career-killing hype machine that can twist a young athlete into a pretzel more easily than Von Miller.

While Fassel may have a point (time will tell), hey, unless Newton was wearing jet skis no footwear was going to get him away from that Broncos' pass rush. Silly as Fassel’s comments seemed to be, this is the kind of heat Cam Newton will have to deal with this off-season and beyond. His Debacle against Denver will not be forgotten. He will be reminded of it far more often than he’d like until he does something to erase its memory.

Dabbing in December won’t be enough.

A telling comment was posted by Hall-of-Fame linebacker Mike Singletary on Twitter. It spoke both of his hopes for Newton and his fears about what the future may hold.

“Will he step up and continue to grow and keep it fun? Or will he step down because it’s hot at the top…right now the question is can he take the heat that comes with greatness. Can’t get it in the gym, no reps required, only mental. The toughest kind of growth. I’m pulling for him, must learn how to win when it’s hot against the great ones.’’

That is really the issue now. It's not a bad game in the Super Bowl. It's not declining to try and recover his own fumble in the fourth quarter of a 16-10 game and later saying he was concerned he might get hurt if he did, although that’s a stain on you that’s difficult to wash off. It’s not acting like a spoiled child lacking in self-awareness or historical context in his bratty but brief post-game mumblings.

It’s really what Cam Newton does next. Frankly, no one can know for sure.

The 2011 overall No. 1 pick played brilliantly this season, but his Super Bowl pratfall makes you wonder. It was obvious all week the moment was getting too big for him, and his play substantiated it. He stunk from the start to the bitter end.

Denver’s harassment had something to do with that, but it was a night unworthy of Superman comparisons unless you believed, as Fassel suggested, those gold shoes were lined with Kryptonite.

One bad game in one big game doesn’t change your narrative, but recent history in such matters is not good. Robert Griffin III was the second overall pick the year after Newton and was an instant hit. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and led the Redskins to the playoffs. He was injured and went 5-15 as a starter the next two seasons, lost the locker room and coaches and last year didn’t take a snap.

He’s now done in Washington with an uncertain future.

Colin Kaepernick came on like gangbusters with the 49ers, making Alex Smith expendable after going 13-3. Kaepernick led San Francisco to the playoffs in 2012 and 2013 and, like Newton, was supposedly revolutionizing how quarterback would be played. Then he lost Super Bowl XLVII despite playing well and was devastated the following season in the NFC championship game by the Seahawks, completing only 58.3 percent of his throws with two interceptions and two fumbles.

From that point on he’s 10-14 as a starter, lost his job and was essentially kicked to the curb last season after opening 2-6.

Newton’s unraveling doesn’t mean this will be his fate as well, but Singletary’s warning must be heeded. Success on the margins is one thing. Success under the searing heat and unending glare of the spotlight is quite another. Mini-Cam wilted under that pressure last week, but he had a lot of help from his teammates and that rabid defense Wade Phillips unleashed on him.

What he does next determines who and what he is. So Mini-Cam and Superman would both be wise to take to heart Singletary’s cautionary words as well as the mocking ones of Wade Phillips. A little dab will do you, Cam. But too much will do you in.