Opinion: We are seeing the end of Cam Newton's stellar, transformative NFL career
Louis Riddick, one of the smartest football analysts alive, was asked a simple question after news broke Tuesday that quarterback Cam Newton had been cut by the Patriots. The question: Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Newton's career?
"The end as a regular starter I believe has arrived," Riddick, who played for four NFL teams and was a scout and front office executive on two others, told USA TODAY Sports. Riddick is now an ESPN analyst and part of the "Monday Night Football" broadcast team.
"I think Cam will have to adjust his expectations at this point. He looks much healthier than last season for sure, but I think we all know he isn't what he once was. That's okay. It happens. He still has a role on an NFL roster. I just don't see it as being the designated, unquestioned starter at this point."
Riddick isn't alone in believing Newton's career is at a critical juncture. Another ESPN analyst, Ryan Clark, who played 12 seasons for three NFL teams and won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh, echoed Riddick.
"I think we started to see that when the Panthers released him," Clark told USA TODAY Sports. "Every team passed, and the Patriots were the only team willing to give him a shot. Now, even they have moved on. Doesn't seem teams believe he is a starter, and I don't know if he's the backup they'd want."
These are blunt words, but they are also likely accurate.
In other words, Newton may no longer possess the physical skills to be a starter. Also, for the moment, he's unvaccinated. Until that changes (if it changes), teams may not want to risk bringing Newton in and exposing their quarterback rooms, and team, to COVID.
Of course, Newton is capable of surprising doubters. He is, after all, one of the most transformational players in league history, who holds the record for career quarterback rushing touchdowns at 70. He's a former league MVP and made a Super Bowl appearance by essentially carrying the Carolina offense on his back.
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Maybe he gets vaccinated and signs with another team, gets a starting shot and shocks the NFL world.
Yet it's easy to see, particularly within the past few years, Newton has physically deteriorated, and it's happened rapidly.
The violence of football has clearly acted as an accelerant on his body. The explosiveness that once terrified defenses is gone. Last season, he looked creaky, and while Newton hasn't always been the most accurate passer, he was accurate enough, but not with the Patriots.
Last year he threw eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In 2015, Newton's MVP season, he threw for 35 scores and 10 picks, and in 2018 he threw for 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Newton's play, and the potency of it, has been in a steady decline.
It's probably important to pause one second and remember just how good Newton was, and how remarkable this moment is. It was only six years ago when he was described as a player who was transforming the position.
Newton, with few exceptions, has long been a brave, tough and mentally strong player who pushed the physical boundaries of what running quarterbacks could do. The same way Steve Young, Randall Cunningham and Mike Vick did.
He both made dumb and obnoxious mistakes and was a target of racists. He was many different things to many different people but, most of all, Newton was a force. Once unstoppable, now he shows the signs of a player, at the age of 32 (which is 42 in running-quarterback years), who has lost multiple steps.
What happens next for Newton? My guess is he gets vaccinated, and then he waits. He waits until a starter or two goes down, and he shoots his shot.
After he was released, Newton released a message on Instagram: "I really appreciate all the love and support during this time but I must say … please don’t feel sorry for me!"
Newton doesn't need anyone's sympathy. He's had a groundbreaking NFL career. No sympathy required.
But that doesn't change the fact we are seeing the end of his NFL career.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Freeman on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL.