CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “Superman,” the sequel, began for the Carolina Panthers on Thursday when quarterback Cam Newton returned to the team he led to the Super Bowl in 2015 with a one-year contract.
The deal is worth up to $10 million for the remainder of the season, including $4.5 million guaranteed and a $1.5 million roster bonus, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Newton’s return created a buzz around the Carolinas that cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who grew up in nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina, and played with Newton the past year and a half in New England, understands better than most.
“There’s a lot of important people in South Carolina and North Carolina, but Cam Newton is probably right up there at the top two or top one,” he said.
Brought him pic.twitter.com/EbVgmkBvkm
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) November 11, 2021
Newton, who celebrated touchdowns with his signature “Superman” move for nine seasons with the Panthers, was unavailable for comment Thursday as he began meeting with coaches after passing his physical.
He is expected to address the media on Friday, but his presence already was felt around Charlotte and at the stadium.
“Everybody knows Cam as a superstar,” said wide receiver DJ Moore, one of about a dozen players who were on the team when Newton last played here in 2019. “But within the locker room he brings a different energy.”
It’s that energy the Panthers hope to harness to possibly make a playoff run.
“We had a heartfelt, sincere discussion with him and it wasn’t about anything in the past,” general manager Scott Fitterer said. “It was more about what are we going to do now moving forward and what is Cam’s role and how can he help us and what can we do to support him.”
The Panthers, who selected Newton with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, released him following the 2019 season after he had struggled for several years with shoulder and foot injuries. They began a new regime with coach Matt Rhule at that time.
The Panthers (4-5) began searching for options at quarterback after starter Sam Darnold suffered a shoulder injury Sunday that will sideline him four to six weeks.
Rhule said that after learning the extent of Darnold’s injury on Tuesday, he got with Fitterer to look at options, with the understanding that P.J. Walker would start Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals (8-1).
“After we talked and deliberated, I went back to my office and called Cam [on Tuesday] night,” Rhule said. “I asked if he had any interest in coming back to the Carolina Panthers. He emphatically said, ‘Yes.'”
Newton flew to Charlotte on Thursday morning to meet with owner David Tepper and Fitterer to finalize the deal. Newton is expected to practice Friday, as Rhule is eager to see “where he is physically.”
“A healthy Cam Newton is a special player,” Rhule said. “We’ll just take it day by day.”
Rhule said the plan is for recently acquired Matt Barkley to serve as the backup to Walker on Sunday.
Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP, started 15 games for the New England Patriots in 2020 before being released in training camp this year after the team decided to go with rookie Mac Jones as the starter.
Newton missed three practices before the season thanks to what the Patriots called a COVID-19 protocol “misunderstanding,” but coach Bill Belichick said the quarterback’s vaccination status didn’t factor into the decision to release him.
The 32-year-old quarterback said in a video published to his YouTube channel last month that he’s been vaccinated.
Rhule said he feels the Panthers still can win now, with the league’s No. 2 defense and a healthy Christian McCaffrey in the backfield, if there is stability at quarterback.
“We have a team we feel like can win,” Rhule said. “We owe it to our players to try to go win. We owe it to our fans to try to go win.”
Added Rhule later: “This is a disciplined decision. This is an excellent player that is healthy and wants to be here. I’m excited.”
Newton last played for Carolina in the second game of the 2019 season before being sidelined after aggravating a Lisfranc injury suffered in the third preseason game.
“Cam Newton is a pro,” Rhule said when asked whether Newton harbored any hard feelings about his release from the Panthers in 2019. “We made a football decision at the time based on his health. We weren’t sure what his health was, and we had to make a decision. Cam understands that. He understands these are football-based.
“… I know that he’s a competitor, I know that he’s tough. He’s everything that I believe and talk about,” Rhule said. “But at the time, he wasn’t healthy. He’s healthy now.”
In nine seasons with Carolina, Newton is the franchise’s career leader in passing yards (29,041), passing touchdowns (182) and rushing touchdowns (58). He ranks third with 4,806 rushing yards.
According to Elias Sports Bureau data, Newton is 959 passing yards and 194 rushing yards from becoming the first player in NFL history to reach the 30K-5K club for a single team — although Russell Wilson needs just 426 rushing yards to reach the milestone with the Seattle Seahawks.
Newton threw for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more during his 2015 MVP season, when he led Carolina to a 15-1 regular-season record.