Decoding Cam: A Case for Clarity in Our Evaluation of Leadership

This article was originally published by the Good Men Project in 2016, after the Carolina Panthers fell to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Cam Newton was harshly criticized, and I felt that some clarity was needed in the discussion. Thanks to the original editors for printing this article.

With the surprise dominance of the Denver D and the retirement of one of the game’s all-time greats, I decided to bite my tongue and bide my time in order to fully unbraid the Cam Newton situation. Harshly critiqued on/in every form of media, it would appear that, despite MVP and NFC Championship trophies balancing his shelf, Cam ended the season on a low note; or so it seems. As an athlete, coach, and student, I’d like to add some thoughts of my own.

First, the judgment of Cam seems to be all over the place. I think it would be helpful to identify the ways in which we are looking; I see three:

  1. Cam as a speaker (at the podium)
  2. Cam as an athlete (on the field)
  3. Cam as a leader (on the field and with teammates)

As a speaker. There seems to be a discussion going on regarding how an NFL QB should behave at the podium. He was too emotional, they say. This is not an article on race, but we live in a racist society. If that comment makes you want to stop reading, I ask you to consider why that might be. (Don’t worry, Reader, that does not mean that you are racist, but it will seem an inconvenient truth for some – all the more reason for us to consider it.) In order to get to the meat of the Cam issue, we have to do our best to divorce his actions as a speaker from any preconceptions we might have regarding how an NFL quarterback should behave.

Our standard for such is colored by popular media’s portrayal of the All-American, white quarterback. *IMPORTANT: I am not claiming that any of Cam’s predecessors have necessarily done anything wrong–what I am saying, however, is that we cannot use Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Roger Staubach as a rubric against which we judge people. Those quarterbacks fueled a homogeneity that has become the dominant standard, but that is not the way it needs to be. It’s just the way we’re used to. Cam doesn’t fit that artificial standard, we can’t fault him for that. In fact, I wish more quarterbacks played with his brand of high-level emotion. I come from Chicago–we can’t seem to pay Jay Cutler enough (though we try) to demonstrate even a hint of passion, or any emotion outside of what might best be qualified as “pouting.”

So, if we can imagine for a moment that a 26 year old young man, after losing his first Super Bowl, has the right to be emotional, then the conversation begins to take shape. If we imagine this heightened state of emotion, and if we listen closely to the bone-headed questions he was being asked (along the lines of “did you mean to throw that interception?”) then perhaps we might even forgive him. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the heat of the moment, and I don’t think I’ve been in many moments as heated as the Super Bowl. I assume that holds true for many of his harshest critics.

Do we hold unfair standards of how a QB is “supposed” to act?

Only once we acknowledge our consumer bias can we turn our discussion toward Cam the athlete. The NFL’s 2015 MVP is one of the great talents in the game. He lives up to his Superman celebration, as many of his feats of strength, speed, passing accuracy, and decision making are clearly super-human. But with a season-low passer rating of 55.3 on the night of the Super Bowl, he came back to earth, if only for a few hours.

I played sixteen seasons of football, including a brief stint as a professional/semi-professional, so my critique comes only by way of actions on the field. Imagining myself as a teammate of Cam, I think I would have questioned his reluctance when he didn’t jump on that late fumble (which essentially sealed the game). But more than anything, it was his sideline flop with more than 3:00 left on the clock that, as a player, I would have been most upset about. In case you have forgotten the details, the Carolina defense battled hard but let in a late score, putting Denver up for good. Cam fell to the ground in disgust. Literally, hit the floor. The problem: not that he was emotive, but that he was defeated. So enters our analysis of Cam as a Captain and leader: he demonstrated to his teammates that it was all over, that he was out. His teammates had to take the field again. There was still enough times for a couple more drives and an onside kick, if necessary. They would, as a team, have to huddle together and try to finish what they had started, but their leader was lying on the ground…

“The problem: not that he was emotive, but that he was defeated.”

As a teammate, I would have been hurt. As a coach I would have felt guilty since, ultimately, any critique of Cam falls on Ron Rivera. I’m usually a huge Rivera fan–he helped the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl Championship as a player in 1985, and an NFC Championship as a coach in 2006; that said, I am not a fan of the Carolina style–they make splash and ride their own wave, instead of adhering to a process based on substance and proven effectiveness. And if you don’t believe me, check out Carol Dweck’s mindset research. In short, she and her team at Stanford tracked the performance of two groups:

  1. a group nurtured on the “momentum” of praise (my term), consistently reminded of how talented and smart they were, so that every good grade reinforced the idea, and
  2. a group nurtured on the logic of sensible procedure, reflecting on the successful processes which led them to a similar number of good grades.

When all of the children faced adversity–an unpassable test–they reacted in two distinct ways: the second group engaged in their usual reflection and did some critical appraisal of their process (perhaps I didn’t study as much as I should have), while the first group–the “momentum” group–begins to question who they are as students (maybe I’m not as smart as I thought). That is exactly what happens to teams who begin to (sorry for the cliché) read their own press clippings. They begin to believe that there is something inherently good about them relative to other teams, something fundamentally better, and as long as the results align (they’re ahead on the scoreboard), then things generally work out in their favor. But when that identity is questioned, they fold. The game-by-game box scores from Carolina’s season reflects this exactly: when they took an early lead, they won; when they fell behind (twice this season), they lost.

When the season was on the line, when the loose ball was on the ground, when the Carolina offense took the field one last time, they had already lost. That is my critique of Cam’s Panthers. It has nothing to do with the way I expect him to behave at the podium (honestly, how many fans would have even noticed, were it not so harshly replayed–99% tune out before the players leave the field, cleaning up after their Super Bowl parties or hunting a surge-rate Uber). I am not condoning his actions in that moment, partially because I’m not sure I have the right to, but also because I care far less about his press conference than how he performs as a leader in the heat of the battle. The rest of that stuff is fluff anyway–mostly sizzle, very little steak.

Just dive on it…

Cam will be fine. And I believe that Cam and the Panthers will be back–they are a strong football team. My hope is that by next fall, we will have adjusted the lens through which we see him. Let’s evaluate him on his ability as an athlete and his decisions as a leader, rather than how well he handles his press conferences. We can ask him to jump on a fumble, but we cannot ask him to fit a mold that was not designed with him in mind.

If Cam decides that he is not satisfied with his postgame press conference, then he will work to improve in the ways he sees fit; no one can question his work ethic or desire. He and Ron will determine, in that specific scenario, what is best for the Panthers.

I would be happy to see Cam enhance his podium presence, if only to give credence to the good things he has to say. While it is unfair to suggest that there is one way he should act, it is fair to say that if he continues to act the way he did on the evening of the Super Bowl, fewer will listen. His teammates love him. His coaches love him. Those who meet him are taken by his confidence and charm. Next season, he will decide which face he wants to put forward–my hope is that it is a continually enhanced version of his own.