It was around the time Cam Newton converted that third-and-10 by bowling over roughly 78 percent of the Arizona Cardinals defense, around the time he delivered a metaphorical screw-you to one of the best teams in the league by keeping the ball again on the next play and plowing into the end zone and putting the Panthers up 34-7 in Sunday’s NFC championship game. Right then, when it became obvious that Newton had excavated a path to Santa Clara in part by virtue of his intimidating forward momentum, the storyline for the next two weeks became clear: This is now the Generation Gap Super Bowl, and we might as well embrace the possibility for progress it presents.
I don’t think there’s ever been a quarterback quite like Newton, who constantly appears to be on the verge of getting his head knocked off by a frothing linebacker, but appears immune to any sort of bodily harm. He plays the position with an exhilarating and unprecedented physicality, and couple that with his ability to make finesse throws and the happy fact that he’s made it this far while keeping all of his extremities intact, and it’s enough to earn him the NFL MVP Award he’ll no doubt take home soon enough. He’s fun as hell to watch, and even if you don’t hold any fealty toward the city of Charlotte, allow to me to declare: Anyone who doesn’t respect the way Cam Newton stretches the very parameters of football is likely a bloodless crank.
Which leads me to the blockheaded condemnations of Newton this season, whose worst crime was apparently that he tore down some guy’s banner, and then exhibited far too much unbridled joy in leading the Panthers to a 15-1 regular season. At best, it was idiotic churlishness exhibited by the kind of people who still write letters to the editor; at worst, it was not-very-well-coded racism. Best as I can tell, the worst criticism you can make of Newton’s public persona to this point in his career is that he swears sometimes and that he perhaps didn’t abide by the rules of the NCAA while in college, which at this point is sort of like piling on Jean Valjean about that loaf of bread. Otherwise, Newton comes across like a solid citizen, which is why this is the Super Bowl that finally might drive your stodgy racist uncle to flip off Hannity and scream obscenities out of his window.
This, of course, is because Cam Newton will now face off against Peyton Manning.
Did you watch Peyton scramble for that first down in the AFC championship victory over the Patriots on Sunday? Hell, you might still be watching as you read this paragraph, because I’m not sure if it’s bounced up to the satellite and landed on screen in Sheboygan quite yet. Manning is a rubbery mess of ailments and middle-aged complaints; while I worry about Newton breaking a limb or taking a frightening shot to the cerebellum, I worry that Manning will actually turn the wrong way, take a sack and disintegrate into dust. These two men are separated at birth by the lifespan of a pimpled adolescent (13 years and 48 days), but it feels like at least ten times as long at this point. Which is why Newton versus Manning will become the central conflict of this Super Bowl, whether the principles involved want it or not. And much of the discussion will be churlish and cranky and perhaps even racist, but much of it, on the occasion of this fiftieth Super Bowl, could morph into a fascinating discussion about the evolution of the quarterback position.
It’s too early to say at this point what Newton’s presence means for the NFL, and whether he’ll change the way the game is played – not many quarterbacks are big enough or strong enough to absorb the punishment Newton does, but what if there are more on the way? – and/or whether Newton or any other young quarterback can take on the mantle of Manning’s intellectual gamesmanship after Manning plays what’s almost certainly his final game at this Super Bowl. Manning was not great on Sunday, but the thing about this year’s Broncos is that he doesn’t have to be; he’s now a kind-of serviceable quarterback who doesn’t take many chances because he realizes he’s playing with one of the best defenses in the NFL. He’s adapted, in the way Newton may have to someday, but not yet, not now, not as he stands on the precipice of thrusting a thumb into the eye of all those who refuse to recognize that the future may be Dabbing right before their eyes.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb