Super Bowl 50 likely bids farewell to a legendary quarterback in Peyton Manning, making way for a new hybrid of signal caller to embrace:  the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton.

By Bryan Pol

Former Pittsburgh Steelers’ safety and ESPN personality Ryan Clark, reporting last week on the Super Bowl on Mike and Mike in the Morning, gave some insight into why he retired at the age he did (35) despite the ability to still play at a modest level.

Cam Newton was just too damn big.

Featured in a segment opposite former teammate Mike Golic, Jr., Clark reminisced over a preseason game in 2013 against the Panthers, during which Cam Newton was priming himself for his third year as Carolina’s starting quarterback.

That season, Newton lead Carolina to a 12-4 record (despite a 1-3 start, Carolina went 11-1 the rest of the way, driven by the organization’s best—at least to that point—winning streak of eight games), his first playoff appearance (the Panthers’ first since 2008), and the franchise’s fourth divisional title, behind the strength of 30 total touchdowns and the highest completion percentage (61.7) of his career.

Clark marveled at Newton’s monstrous size: at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, the former Auburn product looked the part of a lithe, agile lineman, only this physical specimen of an athlete was throwing missiles and running with the speed and grace of a gazelle, leading Carolina to a 25-10 victory.

Golic, Jr. knew right then and there he was not cut out for the NFL.  Ryan Clark?  He also understood the time to retire was nigh.

Now, in Cam’s fifth season behind center for the NFC champion Carolina Panthers, the former Heisman Trophy winner and number one overall pick constructed a season worthy of Most Valuable Player, leading the pack by some distance ahead of Tom Brady.  His club enters Sunday as six-point favorites over the AFC champion Denver Broncos, who field a quarterback likely playing in his last game.

Super Bowl XLVIII, which pit Russell Wilson, a player of similar skill set to Newton’s, albeit much smaller and less capable of hoisting a deep ball, against Peyton Manning, illustrated a changing of guard despite an historic season from Peyton (he threw for a single-season high mark of 55 touchdowns).

It was the hybrid quarterback, equally skilled with his arm and feet, leading his team past a quarterback whose legendary gleam accrued an unsightly tarnish in the thick of a 43-8 drubbing triggered by a merciless and relentless defense.

Two years later, Manning has devolved into a rather pedestrian (although still capable) quarterback, and faces a stout defense and an extremely gifted, multi-dimensional quarterback in a title game.

Cue Mr. Yogi Berra:  it’s deja vu all over again for Peyton, looking to leave the game on top and atone for his miserable Super Bowl showing two seasons ago.

Standing in his way is the 21st century’s answer to the quarterback position, a freak athlete in the form of Cam Newton.

With a win and a stellar performance on Sunday, Newton will enter uncharted territory:  he will be the first player to win the Heisman, a National Championship, a regular season MVP (all but guaranteed at this point), a Super Bowl, and a Super Bowl MVP.

At 26, he would be wrapping up his fifth season in the league at season’s end, while entering the 2016 campaign at 27, looking to reclaim an NFC South title and perform even better with the return of star wideout Kelvin Benjamin, lost in the preseason to an ACL injury.

His stance as the league’s most exciting player is only just beginning, and with an evolving offensive line, a top-flight defense, and a strong running attack at his disposal, Cam looks to battle the aforementioned Wilson, Teddy Bridgewater, and division rival Jameis Winston, three players equal parts the legs (Wilson), arm (Winston), and size (Bridgewater and Winston again) of Newton’s, for NFC supremacy for years to come.

Sorry Aaron Rodgers.

Whether he is dabbing or mimicking Superman in celebration of a touchdown or disregarding a 12th Man flag after a huge playoff win to unseat the defending NFC champions, Newton has drawn ire and second looks from rival fanbases, analysts, and general fans of the game alike, some of whom argue that criticism of Cam is somewhat racially driven.

To be frank, any critique of Cam’s behavior is both ludicrous and egregiously misplaced.

ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio, reporting from San Francisco on this Sunday’s title game, called in to the Michael Kay Show on Tuesday to suggest Cam’s Panthers are grossly underrated, undervalued, and under-appreciated, a team to be revered on the levels of the 1984 Niners and the 1985 Bears, should they win.  Why such high praise?  “Because unlike those ’85 Bears,” Paolantonio quipped, “these Panthers will not be a ‘one-and-done’ franchise.  They will be back next year, injuries notwithstanding.”

Paolantonio, one of Cam’s greatest supporters, even had response for his detractors.

Cam, Paolantonio noted, is a “breath of fresh air,” a player always making himself available to the media, even pandering to them, win or lose, a young man thrilled to play a sport in the same fashion Pee Wee kids are.  As brash and “arrogant” as he might be, Cam desires nothing more than to be a role model to kids, catering to them profusely by means of his Cam Newton Foundation, and seeking a lucky kid out in the stands after every one of his scores, at home or on the road.

This is the Cam Newton we speak fondly of before even mentioning his awe-inspiring statistics.

This season, Newton accounted for 4,473 total yards (3,837 through the air and 636 on the ground, including 100 yards in a 38-35 win against the Giants in Week 15), 45 total touchdowns (35 passing and 10 rushing, the second highest mark in the NFL behind the 11 mustered by DeAngelo Williams, Adrian Peterson, Jeremy Hill, and Devonta Freeman), four-game winning drives (second highest in the league), 13.0 yards per completion (second best in the NFL), and a 99.2 passer rating, the highest of his career.  A first-team, All-Pro quarterback, Cam is all but destined to win the first of what could be many MVPs, given the nature of his skill set and the likes of Greg Olsen and the aforementioned Benjamin serving as his weapons on offense.

To the dismay of his opponents, Cam is still evolving.

With a win on Sunday, the Panthers will do what the 2007 New England Patriots could not:  end the season at 18-1 with a Lombardi Trophy to show for their efforts.  Yes, Peyton Manning will not go down without a fight, but Cam Newton could be the mightiest of foes he has ever faced in the Super Bowl.

Likewise, Cam is far too excited to conclude this season with a whimper:  expect his best despite it being his first rodeo.  Given his rise and affability, a Super Bowl win all but thrusts Cam into Stephen Curry territory.  He, like Steph, becomes the story we will all be talking about long into next season, which begs the question:  how far will Cam’s star rise?

I am an English teacher, music and film aficionado, husband, father of two delightful boys, writer, sports fanatic, former Long Islander, and follower of Christ. Based on my Long Island upbringing, I was groomed as a Yankees, Giants, Rangers, and Knicks fan, and picked up Duke basketball, Notre Dame football, and Tottenham Hotspur football fandom along the way.