Why you should care

Because sometimes excessive celebration is warranted, particularly when you are toasting the new face of the NFL.

It should really be no surprise that a former Heisman Trophy winner and first overall pick in the NFL draft is leading his team to a Super Bowl in his fifth season in the league. But Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is not your everyday football star. From his rocky days in college to his rise to an MVP-caliber season this year, the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder — who’s almost as famous for his scoring celebrations as his scoring talents — has had a polarizing effect on fans and commentators alike.

But even the most ardent skeptics have softened of late; few remain astonished that the former Auburn star now finds himself on the verge of winning pro football’s biggest prize. Newton, who could not be reached for comment, has gone from having his character questioned and being pronounced a “surefire bust” along the lines of Ryan Leaf (the flame-out quarterback picked second overall in 1998) to drawing comparisons with sporting legends like Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali.

Call it Cam Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every negative action, fault or querulous criticism, there has been an equal and opposite reaction, and somehow the controversial quarterback has turned each real or anticipated weakness in his game or character into a strength. SuperCam’s ascension is now less conjecture, more immutable law. And should he best Peyton Manning, the aging warrior and football icon guiding the Denver Broncos into battle on Sunday, then the millions watching Super Bowl 50 may well be witness to the passing of the torch to the next face of the NFL.

I don’t think there’s anybody else in the league that impacts the league like he does.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to The Charlotte Observer

Coming out of college, Newton was revered as a great athlete — big, fast, with a strong arm — but his field vision was considered limited and his accuracy sporadic. While he still isn’t your typical pocket passer (his close to 60 percent pass-completion rate ranks near the bottom of the league), he has raised his game, making reads and passing from the pocket as needed, posting a career-high passer rating of 99.2 (up from 82.1 in 2014).

When you combine that with his running prowess (636 rushing yards), Newton already ranks as one of the greatest dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history. This season he became the first player ever to post at least 30 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns in a single season. But even the remarkable numbers do not tell the true story of his offensive threat. “I don’t think stats and measurables … do him justice, because I don’t think there’s anybody else in the league that impacts the league like he does,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen told The Charlotte Observer.

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Cam Newton scores a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals during the NFC championship game in January 2016.

Source Streeter Lecka/Getty

What does speak loudly? The 15-1 record Newton led the Panthers to — despite losing his best receiver. Such a record is spurred by another unquantifiable element: leadership. When he arrived in Charlotte, many who had watched Newton soar at Auburn wondered how he would respond when the losses and mistakes started piling up. And, as the Panthers went 6-10 and 7-9 his first two seasons and he was not chosen team captain, the whispers grew about whether he even wanted to lead a struggling team.

Now Newton — an Atlanta native who grew up idolizing another controversial quarterback, Michael Vick — has emerged as one of the league’s top leaders. Those who have seen the 26-year-old overcome prior obstacles are not at all surprised; they say his work ethic and competitive spirit have been there all along. Not so long ago, in 2009, Newton arrived at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, having left Florida University’s prestigious football program under a cloud of scandal, including charges that he’d cheated on exams and stolen a laptop. “One could have easily folded and faded away after the events that led him to enrolling at Blinn,” says Jeff Tilley, the college’s marketing and communications director. “But Cam made the best of the situation and worked hard every day to become a better football player and leader.” Newton was the first one to practice and the last to leave every day, and led Blinn to a junior college national championship.

But scandal continued to dog Newton — a 13-month NCAA eligibility investigation into whether his father had shopped him for money to another college ended with no violations found. And questions about his character persisted as he entered the NFL; one influential draft preview wrote that he “has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble.” Today, though, there’s less character analysis (though still plenty of complaints about his showboating) and more hunger for Newton’s energy — which might have a shot at bringing in a whole new generation of fans. Indeed, he’s now the face of everything from Under Armour to Dannon yogurt, and his marketability — as measured by everything from jersey sales to consumer surveys — is skyrocketing. “His popularity among teens and relative youth compared to some of the other stars of the NFL, like Peyton Manning,” says Peter Laatz, an executive at the research firm Repucom, which tracks consumer perceptions of celebrities, “shows tremendous potential for being the face of the NFL in years to come.”

And if Newton can dance his way to victory on Sunday, his rise will undoubtedly continue — and it will be the fans’ and commentators’ turn to engage in some excessive celebration.

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