Opinion: Left in NFL limbo after his release by Panthers, Cam Newton must exhibit patience

The accolades of the past mean little now. That imposing physique doesn’t instantly move the needle as it once did.

Cam Newton hasn’t even turned 31 yet, and he’s only four seasons removed from winning league MVP honors. But after two injury-plagued seasons, and as the Carolina Panthers usher in a new era led by first-year head coach Matt Rhule, Newton finds himself at a crossroads littered with questions and great uncertainty.

Newton on Tuesday received his walking papers — one of the least surprising developments of the offseason. 

Speculation of divorce from the franchise that drafted him first overall in 2011 surfaced before the 2019 campaign even reached its midway point. Carolina’s signing of Teddy Bridgewater last week sealed Newton’s fate. Recent trade solicitations proved fruitless, and a day after sending Kyle Allen, Newton’s backup, to Washington and former Panthers coach Ron Rivera for a fifth-round pick, Carolina officially released Newton. 

For the first time in his career, Newton will experience free agency. But because of numerous factors — some in his control and some beyond — he’ll likely endure a lengthy wait before learning where his football journey will next take him. 

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At one point in his career, a tepid Newton market would have been unfathomable. But in today’s climate, a quick relocation is considered impossible.

Some of the most pressing questions involve Newton’s health, particularly the unclear condition of surgically repaired right shoulder and left foot, which combined to derail his 2019 season after just two games.

Newton has posted numerous workout videos on his Instagram account, and he looks good. But for many NFL talent evaluators, that’s just window dressing. 

Until their doctors can actually lay eyes on Newton, and possibly even until their coaches can evaluate his ability to throw and run, concerns about investing in Newton will remain. 

The nine-year veteran can’t help the holding pattern in which he and a host of other NFL free agents and their potential suitors find themselves thanks to the restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic

For now, NFL free agents aren’t able to travel to team facilities to meet with potential employers. Instead, everything is done via telephone or video conference.

During the first wave of free agency, NFL teams reached verbal agreements with players. Those deals, however, didn’t become official until the athletes received physicals from third-party doctors in their areas.

But teams are more hesitant to conduct business in the same manner with players coming off serious injuries. Many of those athletes will have to wait until things begin to return to normal — whenever that is.

But Newton also must answer questions on matters beyond health. 

Fit and maturity rank high on the list.

Newton has always been 100% comfortable marching to the beat of his own drum, and his persona has rubbed some people the wrong way. 

Given Newton’s displays of heart throughout his career, the way he has sacrificed his body for his team and served the Charlotte community off the field, criticisms of his leadership ability seem laughable. But only Newton can ease such reservations once given the chance to meet face-to-face with general managers and coaches.

Newton’s humility also could be tested.

For now, few teams remain in the market for starting quarterbacks. Newton might have to settle for a situation where he is asked to either compete for a job or initially back up another, multiple people within the league told USA TODAY Sports. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity and fluidity of the situation.

It’s hard to believe that a healthy Newton — one of the most dominant and well-rounded quarterbacks for a stretch, a guy who nearly single-handedly carried the Panthers to a 15-1 record and Super Bowl 50 appearance in 2015 — would struggle to find a starting job in a league where Mitchell Trubisky, Gardner Minshew and Derek Carr all claim first-string roles. 

But that’s a real scenario, at least initially. 

How long could a coach really keep Newton on the bench, though? 

The Chargers have expressed confidence in Tyrod Taylor as their bridge to the future, and the Jaguars may like Minshew. However, a healthy Newton would give either team a better shot at winning. The same would apply for Newton against Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer in New England, if Bill Belichick opted to roll the dice. That could sound like a big if, but Belichick definitely has taken in high profile castoffs on more than one occasion.

But again, so much of Newton’s future hinges on his health, a matter that will remain unresolved for some time.

To multiple figures within the league, speaking to USA TODAY Sports’ on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons, Washington’s acquisition of Allen, whom they plan to use as a backup to the unproven Dwayne Haskins, served as a damaging blow for Newton’s chances for a quick rebound. No coach has greater familiarity with Newton than does Rivera, who drafted him in 2011. And whether intentional or not, the coach’s decision to add Allen rather his former star raised red flags around the league. 

But perception is not always reality. 

Newton certainly deserves another shot, and chances are he’ll elevate whatever team signs him, so long as he’s anywhere close to the form in which he earned three Pro Bowl appearances in seven healthy seasons,

But until he can answer questions about his health, patience must now serve as Newton’s greatest strength. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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