‘I’m back’: Cam Newton returns to Panthers, arrives at practice

CHARLOTTE — Superman has returned. Cam Newton is coming back to the Carolina Panthers.

The team announced just after noon on Thursday that it had agreed to terms with the 32-year-old quarterback, bringing the former No. 1 overall pick back to Charlotte.

The Panthers announced they’ve signed Newton to a one-year contract, bringing him back to the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011 -- and later cut him prior to the 2020 season after he lost eight straight games as a starter.

“This time has been therapeutic to my overall growth as a person and just me realizing that I have to start maximizing each and every opportunity in my life,” Newton said.

The deal is worth $10 million, including $4.5 million in fully guaranteed money and a $1.5 million roster bonus, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team does not announce financial terms of players’ contracts.

On Friday, the team tweeted video of Newton arriving at practice.

“A healthy Cam Newton is a special player,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said.

Carolina was in need of a quarterback after an MRI on Monday revealed starter Sam Darnold would miss at least four weeks with a incomplete fracture of his right shoulder blade. Rhule said he called Newton on Tuesday night to gauge his interest in returning to Carolina, and the quarterback was excited about the possibility.

“He loves Charlotte. He loves the Carolina Panthers. He made that very clear to me,” Rhule said.

“I’m going to tell you this,” Newton said in Friday’s press conference. “There’s so much gratitude. Not saying I didn’t have gratitude before, but this time, it hits different.”

After making the announcement, the team said it was not just Newton’s 139 NFL starts that make him valuable, but that he could help a team that still has legitimate playoff hopes.

Walking into an offense with talented players like Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and Robby Anderson could allow for a quick transition, and the familiarity with the first two can only help. Newton’s ability to run also matters, since the Panthers have tried to establish that as part of their identity in recent weeks.

Rhule said P.J. Walker will still start Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals and Matt Barkley, signed off the Tennessee Titans practice squad earlier in the week, will serve as his primary backup. Rhule isn’t sure if Newton would be active this week because he hasn’t practiced yet.

“This Sunday feels too soon for Cam’s debut,” Channel 9 sports anchor Phil Orban said. “But his first start could come as early as a week from Sunday at home against (coach) Ron Rivera’s Washington Football Team.”

(WATCH BELOW: Channel 9′s DaShawn Brown hears from players, head coach Matt Rhule on Cam Newton’s return)

Rhule said Thursday it all started with a phone call to Newton Tuesday night. Rhule asked if Newton had an interest in rejoining the Panthers. He said Newton’s answer was a yes and it was emphatic.

“To me, when I bring in a player, I’m trying to help the team win and that’s it,” Rhule said Thursday afternoon at a press conference. “I’m bringing Cam here, not to energize anyone, though that’s great -- not to sell season tickets. We’re bringing him here to win.”

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said late Thursday afternoon that Newton passed a physical after officially signing with the team.

Newton, who is expected to address the media on Friday, spoke to his fans on social media. Overnight, he posted a video on Facebook with the simple message: I’m back.

(WATCH Cam’s message to fans below)

Panthers cornerback Stephon Gilmore said Thursday that Newton will immediately bring leadership and some much-needed energy to the team.

“He’s happy to be out there on the field,” Gilmore said. “Sometimes, we are so serious about the game we forget to have fun and that’s one thing I see him having fun. And he brings that out and that allows his teammates to have fun also. And I know he’s going to be a big help for us.”

Panthers fans rejoiced after the news that “Superman” is returning.

“I never threw them (memorabilia) away,” fan Simon Gedrekiristos told Channel 9 in uptown. “I just hoped and prayed. I didn’t think he would come back. I was saying they should sign Cam back. I didn’t think it would happen.”

The fan shop didn’t have Newton’s jersey yet and was waiting on official word from the NFL on what the number he will wear.

“I do think he can turn the team around,” fan Ashley Pointe said. “They wanted him back for a reason. He’s here. Keep pounding!”

Outside the gates of Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, a fan wearing Newton’s No. 1 jersey stood waiting for the QB to arrive and greeted people entering the facility with a giddy smile saying “this feels like Christmas to me.”

Inside the empty bowl of the stadium the team lit up the scoreboards with the words “He’s Back.”

Rhule wouldn’t speculate on if Newton would be the starter beyond this week, but general manager Scott Fitterer said Newton “came here to play” -- and the money the Panthers invested in him for the final eight games of the season is a strong indication they plan on him being more than just a backup.

Gilmore, who grew up about 30 minutes from Charlotte and played with Newton in New England, spoke to the importance of the QB’s return to the Carolinas.

“There’s a lot of important people in South Carolina and North Carolina, but Cam Newton is probably right up there at the top two or top one,” Gilmore said.

Newton’s plan was to stay late into the night to learn the team’s playbook. He’s expected to join his new teammates at practice on Friday.

“We had a heartfelt, sincere discussion with him and it wasn’t about anything in the past,” Fitterer said. “It was more about what are we going to do now moving forward and what is Cam’s role and how can he help us and what can we do to support him.”

Rhule said on Wednesday that Darnold will miss at least four weeks with a right shoulder injury. Darnold, who is 4-5 as the team’s starter, will go on injured reserve.

With Darnold set to miss at least a month, that led to a question posed to head coach Matt Rhule about whether the team would explore bringing Newton back.

Rhule said that the Panthers would “obviously explore any and all options,” but declined to discuss the idea of bringing Newton back to the franchise.

“I won’t get into any hypotheticals, I’ll probably just talk about the guys on the roster,” Rhule said. “But our job is to try to win, so we’re going to evaluate and talk to whatever we think is possibly out there. But in terms of specific comments, I’d just talk about our team.”

(WATCH BELOW: Superman returns: Cam Newton rejoins Carolina Panthers)

After starting 3-0, the Panthers are now 4-5 and Darnold is tied for the league lead with 11 interceptions.

“My job is to try to win right now,” Rhule said Wednesday afternoon. “Our fans aren’t paying money to watch us win in two years. At the same time, you’re trying to build a Super Bowl-caliber team. So it’s a balancing act of doing what’s right long-term and trying to win at the same time. Many times those are the same thing.

“There are four teams in the NFC with more than six wins. Everyone else is about like us. Lots of teams right now in the NFL are trying to figure out how to get past .500, and have a good year and win in the second half of the year ... My job is to try to win.”

Panthers’ owner David Tepper was part of the organization when Newton last played a game for the team in 2019. Rhule and General Manager Scott Fitterer had been hired by the time Newton was released in 2020 after attempts to trade him were unsuccessful.

After Thursday’s announcement, the team tweeted a photo of Tepper and Newton, with the caption, “Together again.”

Newton, 32, has not played for anyone since being released by the Patriots ahead of the start of the regular season.

Newton has struggled in recent years to get back to the playing level that earned him league MVP honors in 2015, in part due to shoulder and foot injuries. Newton is 7-16 in his last 23 career starts with 20 interceptions and 17 touchdown passes. He has run for 12 TDs during that span.

In Newton’s nine seasons with the Panthers, he threw for 29,041 yards and 182 touchdowns, and ran for 58 touchdowns. He’s the team’s all-time leader in all three categories, and he’s also third on the team’s all-time rushing list with 4,806 yards, trailing only Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.

Newton won the NFL offensive rookie of the year award in 2011, and league MVP honors in 2015, when he led the team to a 15-1 record and a berth in the Super Bowl.

He’s also the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 70, 12 of which came last year in 15 starts with the Patriots.

Newton’s best season came in 2015 when he combined for 45 touchdowns -- 35 passing and 10 rushing -- and helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl after going 15-1 during the regular season. However, Newton struggled in Super Bowl 50 and the Panthers lost 24-10 to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Newton was 18 of 41 for 265 yards with no touchdowns and two turnovers in that game while being sacked six times.

(WATCH BELOW: Superman returns: Cam Newton gives back to community)

Newton is 7-16 in his last 23 starts with 20 interceptions and 17 touchdown passes. He’s run for 16 touchdowns during that span. He was released on Aug. 31 after one season with the New England Patriots, with coach Bill Belichick going with rookie Mac Jones as his starting QB.

Meanwhile, the Panthers have struggled to find a replacement since Newton left.

Teddy Bridgewater went 4-11 as a starter last season before being traded to the Denver Broncos for a sixth-round draft pick. The Panthers then added Darnold earlier this offseason, but he’s been a letdown with 10 interceptions in his last six games while playing in front of a stadium with plenty of empty seats.

Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore said he’s stayed in touch with Newton and even worked out with him one day in Atlanta this offseason.

He said Newton’s arm strength looked fine.

Moore said Newton will bring “positive energy” to the team.

“Everybody knows Cam as a superstar, but within the locker room he brings a different energy and he’s a vet that P.J. can lean on and actually learn something from,” Moore said. “With them it’s going to be amazing to see how they push each other. And then when Sam comes back it will be amazing to see all three of them push each other.”

“Hell yeah, I still want to play football,” Newton said last month on YouTube, after announcing that he wanted to return to the game so he got vaccinated against the coronavirus -- something he had initially been reluctant to do. “I still get that urge to go out and perform and do something that I’ve been doing since I was 7 years old. But also, it’s like, man, I’m so much more than just a football player. Respect me as such.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Why he left: When Newton was released on March 24, 2020 it marked an unceremonious end to the team’s nine-year relationship with the 2015 NFL MVP. The team’s No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 draft was in the midst of rehabbing from foot surgery when the Panthers announced they had given him permission to seek a trade. Newton disputed that, posting on Twitter that the Panthers “forced me into this.’’ Within a few hours of his tweet, news surfaced that Carolina was completing a deal to sign former New Orleans Saints backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million deal. After the Panthers completed the Bridgewater deal, it became necessary for them to release Newton to clear the $21.1 million that he was scheduled to count against the salary cap in 2020.

While he was away: On June 28, 2020, Newton agreed to a one-year, incentive-laden deal with the New England Patriots, who were looking to fill the void left by Tom Brady’s departure. Factoring in Newton’s health, the modest contract was viewed as a low-risk, high-reward situation for the Patriots. The quarterback started 15 games for New England, throwing eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The Patriots finished with a 7-9 record in 2020, marking their first losing season since 2000. In March 2021, the Pats re-signed Newton to another modest one-year deal that included $3.5 million in guaranteed money. The team captain was released on Aug. 31, signaling the beginning of the Mac Jones era in New England.

When he returned: On Thursday, reports surfaced that Newton was meeting with the quarterback-thin Panthers (4-5), who had begun searching for QB help after starter Sam Darnold was sidelined with a shoulder injury. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that they reached a deal, pending a physical, worth up to $10 million for the remainder of the season, including $4.5 million guaranteed and a $1.5 million roster bonus.

Homecoming quote: “Brought him home.” -- Panthers social accounts.

ESPN contributed to this article.