Cam Newton posted a photo on Twitter Friday morning.
It’s no artistic masterpiece. A port-a-potty dominates the lower middle of the frame. The rest is parking lot, a temporary trailer, shadows and the bland glass and brick front of a storied, middle-aged Gillette Stadium.
But metaphorically? The image carries some weight.
We see Newton’s profile, in the shadow, a little out-of-focus. He’s wearing shades and an expression that’s … what?
Placid? Stoic? Bored? Nervous? Determined? Excited?
The stadium’s ahead of him. Everything’s ahead of him. But so much is unknown.
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The first overall pick in the 2011 draft, the 2015 MVP, an on-field force of nature when at his best, Newton arrives in Foxboro still feeling the sting of being spurned. First by his former team, then by the league.
He’s here competing for the chance to replace the greatest quarterback in NFL history and he’s doing it for a base salary of $1.05M, the veteran minimum. Same salary as Brian Hoyer. If Newton wanted more than that, the Patriots couldn’t — and wouldn’t — have signed him back in late June.
Newton doesn’t seem like someone who experiences much self-doubt. But the past year was good fertilizer to make doubt take root.
The Panthers went 23-23 with Newton as their starter from 2016-19. Shoulder injuries robbed him of arm strength. A foot issue cost him last year. He turned 32. Few if any quarterbacks have taken the amount of physical punishment Newton has.
Does he arrive in New England trying to recapture or reinvent?
Is Newton prepared to be treated as a cog in the wheel? Ready to be upbraided as loudly as the last guy on the roster? Tom Brady got that treatment for a long time. And then it wore on him.
Is Newton ready for a head coach famous for understatement and stingy with praise? A coach who thinks doing one’s job is not cause for breaking out the sheet cake?
Will Newton embrace everything about New England?
The Ringer’s Tyler R. Tynes spent a year reporting on Newton for his narrative podcast — “The Cam Chronicles” — which debuted on July 13. Tynes gathered insights on Newton that will be worth remembering as Newton comes to a far different part of the country to replace a quarterback who did things in a far different way than Newton did with the Panthers.
One of the people Tynes spoke with was Newton’s father, Cecil.
“He is not so hypersensitive about whether you like him or not,” said Cecil Newton. “He’s comfortable in his own skin. I’m glad he’s like that, because if he wasn’t, you know, he probably would have faded long before now.”
Aside from standard press conference obligations, Newton doesn’t speak much with conventional media. But his persona on the field and off practically demands opinions. He wears stuff ‘70s era Elton John would think was over the top. He’s demonstrative and self-congratulatory on the field and he doesn’t love being questioned.
Brady had plenty of unconventional wardrobe choices too at times. And he’s always been plenty demonstrative and a Grade-A crap-talker when the occasion called for it.
But he’s also maintained a certain savvy for knowing how to toggle back and forth between different iterations of himself. Polished. Profane. Ultimate teammate. Singular winner. Super celebrity. Just a guy.
Brady can be anything to anybody. Newton isn’t as much a chameleon. He’s eccentric and self-assured. If there was a time he wanted to be universally embraced, that seems to have passed.
Speaking with Tynes last year, Newton said, “I’m in a position now, man, where I’m comfortable in my skin,” he told me. “I don’t try to be nothing that I’m not. And I’m fine with that. And a lot of times it kind of rubs people the wrong way.
“I always try to push the pendulum no matter what it may be. And the fact that, you know, I’m in this place of influence. I want to make sure that, you know, I project being unique, being yourself and being, you know, true to who you are and where you came from as well.”
The other side of that question, of course, is whether New England will embrace Newton?
Newton is in some ways ideally suited for the job. It’s hard to even compare the way the two men play the position so everyone already knows there’s no stylistic comparison.
Newton’s a megastar so he’s not going to be rattled by the attention — though it will be interesting to see if he can smilingly shrug off criticism as Brady usually did.
But there’s also the issue of race. The perception that Boston and New England can be unwelcoming to people of color in general — athletes included — is well-documented. So too is this region’s defensiveness about that perception. There’s no doubt Newton is aware of all of it.
Into race-conscious New England at a time when the nation is more attuned than ever to racial issues comes a demonstrative Black quarterback who’s faster and stronger but less accurate than his absurdly accomplished predecessor who’s always been credited with having a mind like a super-computer.
How Newton is received, the tone of coverage, word choices made in describing him relative to Brady, judgments made on his clothes, demeanor — all will be subject to scrutiny.
This isn’t just a great player possibly succeeding the best-ever. It’s much more fraught than that.
Will Blackmon, a Providence native who played for six NFL teams, was on Tom Curran’s Patriots Talk Podcast last week.
Blackmon, who went to Boston College and was a fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2006, said this when I asked if he thought Newton would be embraced.
“We were fine with Kevin Garnett,” Blackmon said.
I asked Blackmon, who is Black, if New England is misunderstood nationally on matters of race.
“I wouldn’t say it’s misunderstood,” he answered. “People like Big Papi dealt with some stuff. Carl Crawford dealt with some stuff.
“I think for the fact that Bill Belichick is the one taking the chance on Cam means that … people will respect his decision on that,” Blackmon added. “(People will say), ‘We’re gonna trust him on this one. We’re still gonna watch (Newton) closely. Still.’ Even though they trust him, they’re still gonna watch him closely.”
New England has alternately embraced and rebuffed innumerable talented but divisive players Belichick’s brought in over the years. Chad Ochocinco. Corey Dillon. Randy Moss.
Without fail, the approval or disapproval of each guy was linked to how they were playing.
Blackmon summed up the New England sports fan’s mindset this way: “Sometimes people feel a certain way when someone is really sure of themselves. That is that area. They want you to be conservative. Just relax. Play football. We don’t need all these antics.”
Patriots Talk Podcast: Is New England ready to embrace Cam Newton? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube
In his conversation with Tynes, Newton sounded like a man who believes he’s always evolving.
“I make mistakes,” he told Tynes. “I have made mistakes. I’m going to continue to make mistakes. But at the same time, I don’t want those mistakes to be something that’s been constant. You know, I want to live and I’ve got children. I want to be able to teach them right from wrong and know what to expect. And, you know, I don’t proclaim to be something that I’m not. And I know who I am and I know what I’m trying to be.”
How Newton adapts and performs in Josh McDaniels’ offense and on Belichick’s football team is easily one of the most interesting questions leading into this season.
How malleable will Newton be? How much will McDaniels commit to letting Cam be Cam?
“I’m not going to say he’s going to ‘conform’ because he doesn’t need to conform,” said Blackmon. “But he’s going to listen to coach Belichick. He has to. You’re in a situation where no one believes in you and the greatest coach in football history is bringing you on to give you a chance. Cam Newton is going to listen.”
The last thing Newton said to Tynes in their interview last year is a great quote to close on as Newton, the Patriots and New England head into the great unknown of the 2020 NFL season.
“I’m true to who I am, man,” Newton told Tynes. “And I don’t bite my tongue for nobody. Everybody know how I rock and roll. And I’m just more comfortable that way.”