Cam Newton's sad story is a cautionary tale for rambling Lamar Jackson to ponder
Lamar Jackson may become the greatest running quarterback of all-time this season but he would be wise to look at what the cost of achieving that could be.
Truth be told, he doesn’t have to look far to find out.
Sitting with him every day in the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback meeting room is a guy who once did what he’s doing, which is to say run as well as he passed while driving a team that plays barely an hour away from the Ravens into the playoffs.
In 2012, Robert Griffin III was the man in Washington, rushing for 854 yards and seven touchdowns and averaging 6.8 yards a carry. Griffin was named Rookie of the Year and chosen for the Pro Bowl. He also blew out his knee and was never the same.
Two years later he fractured his ankle. Since that time he’s played in only two of the past five seasons.
One might look at that as an outlier, especially if one is as young and gifted as Jackson. In half a season he has rushed for 637 yards and is on pace for 1,274, which would break the previous high held by Michael Vick (1,039) by over 200 yards.
Vick was never the same after that year, either, but part of that can be attributed to his being incarcerated in a dog-fighting scandal. Although he would come back to the NFL three years later, Vick never approached his previous feats and soon continued what had already become an injury-marred career.
OK, but Jackson has no intention of having his career bifurcated by incarceration. So what does he have to worry about?
Well, ask Cam Newton.
Unlike the more slightly built Jackson, Newton stands 6-5 and weighs 245 pounds. He once ran like a gazelle but looked like a linebacker. At 30 years old, Newton is a former league MVP, led the Carolina Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance and ranks third all-time among rushing quarterbacks with 4,806 career yards and first in rushing touchdowns with 58, 15 more than Steve Young. Young might have run for more but was forced to retire because of repeated concussion.
Now Newton is done for the season as the result of a Lisfranc injury to his left foot that first hobbled him last season. It is the latest in a string of nagging injuries to his shoulder and legs that have radically changed him as a player. Cam Newton is only 30 years old.
Newton has the third, fourth, fifth and sixth most single-season rushing attempts for a quarterback in NFL history (Jackson is first with 147 last year and seems likely to break that this season). He did not miss a game four of his first five NFL seasons and went to three Pro Bowls.
Then an aching shoulder and battered legs arrived. Since then Newton played 16 games only once, lost his last eight straight starts and this week was shut down for the year and may have played his last game for the Panthers.
"For so long I played this game one way,” Newton said in a YouTube video on September 27, a few weeks after he was shut down after only two starts. “I played this game the only way I know how to play. And at this particular time, that No. 1 that's out there, that hasn't been that same person.
“If I were to go out there and play four quarters of football in the state that I’m in right now with my foot, it would be a No. 1 out there but it won’t be Cam Newton, what everybody’s accustomed to seeing. And I refuse for that to happen.’’
Newton was 0-2 as a limping starter this year. His replacement, undrafted Kyle Allen, has gone 5-1 since with the same team but half the ability as Newton.
As Jackson continues to run wild, as he did last Sunday night when he knifed through the No. 1-ranked New England Patriots’ defense for 61 yards and two rushing touchdowns, Newton is preparing for an unknown future only four years removed from being the league’s Most Valuable Player.
That should not go unnoticed by Jackson, although at the age of 22 it probably will be.
What the future holds for Newton is difficult to divine, but he would be a $19.1 million hit on the Panthers’ cap in 2020, when he enters the final year of his contract at 31. If a decision is made to move on from a limping, sore shouldered former MVP who has led Carolina to only one winning season since that MVP year it would only result in only $2 million in dead money.
If new owner David Tepper decides Newton is not the future of the team he bought a year ago for $2.275 BILLION, no one would be surprised. It’s just a reminder that what NFL really stands for when it comes to the players is “Not For Long.’’
Not so long ago Newton was bigger than Jackson in the eyes of the NFL. He was on his way to becoming one of the league’s premier quarterbacks and one of the faces of the NFL. But lurking in the shadows was the fact he was being beaten down year after year. The more he ran, the more he suffered, tackled 1,235 times since his rookie season. How many hits does that equate too?
Too many, it seems.
Like Vick, at 30 Cam Newton’s body has broken down. In the sad case of RG III, it barely took one season for that process of erosion to begin and less than three to make his game unrecognizable from what it had been that glorious rookie season of 2012.
Jackson has heard all this of, course but, like Newton, Griffin, Vick and so many others before him, he is blinded by the hubris of youth. His gifts are startlingly rare. He is a joy to watch with the ball in his hand as he leave defenders grasping at air, astonished at how this elusive young man just made them tackle an empty space.
“The doubters always gonna be there,’’ Jackson said this week. “I’m a different player. I play it safe, but I also play to win.’’
Surely he thinks so. Vick and Newton thought so, too. So did Young until his head gave out and Andrew Luck until his whole body imploded, forcing him to retire in pain this summer at the age of, surprise, 30.
The saddest truism in the NFL is that youth passes before its time. If Lamar Jackson doubts that, all he has to do is give Cam Newton a call. Or, if he wants to save some time, just walk across the room and sit down with Robert Griffin III.
Pro football is a glorious game but a cruel mistress. You may love it, but it never loves you back with the same devotion. It is a game where success comes with a painful price if you play the way Lamar Jackson does. That’s not another doubter talking to him. That’s sad history talking.