SAN FRANCISCO: Cam Newton may divide opinion with his carefully choreographed touchdown routines but a consensus is rapidly building that the Carolina Panthers star may be the greatest dual threat quarterback the sport has ever seen.
The 6ft 5in (1.96m), 250lb (113kg) Panthers signal-caller has electrified the National Football League since his professional debut in 2011 with a potent passing and rushing game that all too often has left opponents — and records — in its wake.
When the 26-year-old dived over for the 43rd rushing touchdown of his career against Tampa Bay last month, he equaled his childhood hero Steve Young’s long-standing all-time record for a quarterback.
But while legendary San Francisco 49er Young’s mark was compiled in 169 games across 15 seasons, Newton equaled the record after only 78 games in his fifth season in the NFL.
Newton has been the driving force behind the Panthers’ relentless march to Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos, leading his team to a 17-1 record while becoming the first quarterback in history to throw for more than 30 touchdowns and rush for 10 more in a single season.
One of a kind
“What he’s done in the short time being an NFL quarterback, he’s been awesome. That’s the best word I can think of,” was the verdict of Peyton Manning, Newton’s opposite number on Sunday and the elder statesman of the NFL quarterback brotherhood.
Denver’s veteran defensive guru Wade Phillips, the man entrusted with producing a plan to stop Newton on Sunday, admitted he was unnerved by the Panthers quarterback.
“You’re giving me nightmares now, right?” Phillips told reporters this week when asked how he planned to cope with Newton.
“I’ve never seen one like him and nobody else has,” Phillips added.
Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib described Newton as unique.
“You can’t find another guy like him on tape,” Talib said this week.
“He could take off at any moment and score a touchdown with his legs. He can throw the ball 70 yards – score a touchdown with his arm.
“He’s one of a kind, man. One of a kind.”
Newton’s effervescent, joyful celebrations — his signature “Dab” dance, his Superman impersonations, his habit of presenting a match ball to young spectators every time a touchdown is scored — are not to everyone’s taste.
Opponents have accused him of lacking respect. A Newton touchdown dance against the New Orleans Saints in 2014 sparked an ugly melee.
This season the Tennessee Titans were similarly enraged, with coach Mike Mularkey complaining that Newton had broken the sport’s “code of ethics.”
One reader of The Charlotte Observer took to the letters page, meanwhile, to complain about Newton’s “chest puffs, pelvic thrusts and taunting.”
Yet Newton’s admirers far outnumber his detractors, and there remains the suspicion of an underlying racial dimension to some of the criticism, the sense that as a black athlete, he is held to a different standard to white peers who celebrate touchdowns every bit as exuberantly, without drawing complaints.
A brave tradition
“I think he’s part of a longstanding and brave tradition, going back to Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Serena Williams,” said Bill Littlefield, the long-time host of National Public Radio’s “Only A Game” sports show.
“This is a racial thing. People are uncomfortable with black athletes who, they think, transcend what they should be doing.”
Newton himself fueled the racial debate when he was asked recently to comment on why he seemed to divide opinion.
“I’ve said this since Day One,” Newton said.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
In the final countdown to the Super Bowl, Newton has been reluctant to revisit the subject, suggesting that his earlier reference to his skin color was miscontrued, wearily stating that he does not want to pigeon-holed as simply a “black quarterback.”
“When you ask me a question about African-American or being black and mobile, it’s bigger than that,” Newton said.
“When I go places and I talk to kids and I talk to parents and I talk to athletes all over, they look at my story and they see a person, African-American or not, that they can relate to.”
As for the touchdown dances, Newton has no intention of dialing back his routines.
Asked why he thought so many critics took umbrage, he replied: “I don’t know. But I guess you’re going to have to get used to it, because I don’t plan on changing.”