The 32-year-old quarterback produced touchdowns on his first two plays Sunday to propel Carolina to a 34-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium.
Newton brought much-needed energy to a Panthers team (5-5) that had lost five of its past six games and faced long odds against the Cardinals, who entered the day with an NFL-best 8-1 record.
“No disrespect to them,” Newton said. “But I’m just floating at an all-time high frequency. It’s almost scary.”
He scored on a 2-yard run around the right side less than four minutes into the game, lunging through linebacker Isaiah Simmons and into the end zone. He followed with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Robby Anderson on his second play, which the two had worked on for the first time Friday.
“We worked on that a couple of times to get the timing of it down,” Anderson said. “We knew it was going to be there.”
Newton finished with 8 yards passing and 14 yards rushing. Those aren’t the numbers that made him the NFL MVP in 2015, when he helped Carolina to an NFL-best 15-1 season and a trip to the Super Bowl.
But they were a good beginning considering Newton spent only three days on the playbook.
His two scoring plays came in the same stadium where Newton made his NFL debut in 2011 after Carolina drafted him first overall out of Auburn. It also is where Newton played his last game in college, helping the Tigers win the national title with an undefeated season.
Newton said he thought about that on Sunday morning when he was reading his daily devotional.
“I was reading about Moses, and God spoke to Moses in the desert,” Newton said. “And where are we at?”
Newton came in for Walker to score the first touchdown on second-and-goal as he took the snap from the shotgun and popped the play outside.
He then took off his helmet and began shouting, “I’m baaaack” as he ran up and down the sideline. He also handed the football to a kid in the stands as he always did during his first go-around at Carolina. The celebration drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but it seemed worth it to teammates.
Running back Christian McCaffrey said Newton brings energy like nobody he’s ever known. Walker said he felt it, too.
“Just him being himself, him bringing the juice and energy he brings, it helps this team a lot,” he said. “It helps us all relax, be comfortable to play great football.”
Newton was back up with first-and-goal from the 2-yard line again a few minutes later. This time he started running to his right and then tossed the touchdown pass to Anderson.
“This is all God’s work,” said Newton, making sure he credited Walker, McCaffrey and others for putting him in position to score.
Newton returned to Carolina on Thursday with a one-year deal that could pay him up to $10 million for the rest of the season. He is expected to get his first start in his second tenure with the Panthers next week at Bank of America Stadium against Washington and coach Ron Rivera, who made Newton the top pick in 2011.
Coach Matt Rhule wouldn’t say for sure that Newton would start, but added: “We brought him here to play.”
For Newton, getting into Sunday’s game was the start of an audition for next season. If he does well, according to a league source, the Panthers will attempt to re-sign him to be their starter in 2022. That would make Darnold, guaranteed $18.5 million next season after Carolina picked up his fifth-year option following a trade with the New York Jets, one of the highest-paid backups in the league.
The Panthers could attempt to trade Darnold, but it’s unlikely a team would make such a deal with his high cap figure. And the Panthers, according to a source, wouldn’t give Darnold away. They already are paying last year’s starter, Teddy Bridgewater, $7 million this season while he plays for Denver.
Rhule said last week that a healthy Newton had a chance to be special. The QB showed a glimpse of that Sunday.
Newton, meanwhile, made sure to remind everyone that he was grateful for the opportunity.
“I’ll put it like this: This time last week I was [at home] eating a bowl of cereal,” he said. “That puts things in perspective.”