So you're an NFL team, and through a mind-numbing flood of your own on-field ineptitude, you land the No. 1 pick in the draft. You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars scouting, vetting, hand-wringing over either a) whom to take or b) making sure the obvious choice is the correct choice.
In the case of the Carolina Panthers back in 2011, it was a combination of those two things — despite a perfect record on the field as a starter in college, Cam Newton was far from a perfect prospect overall. Off the field, issues of chicanery and poor judgment dogged him going all the way back to Florida. (And how about that fake smile?!)
Physically, Newton was the obvious choice for the Panthers. Mentally and from an intangible standpoint, there were still plenty of questions. As is usually the case with an über-force like Newton, the physical becomes too intoxicating to pass on. The Panthers made him the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, despite actually using their second round pick on a quarterback (Jimmy Clausen, don't laugh!) the season before.
The saving grace in the summer of 2011 for Carolina, when it came time to sign Newton, was a new rookie wage scale, a necessary fallout of that summer's lockout that capped Newton's earnings for the first four years of his career at around $20 million total, so even if Newton were a bust, it wouldn't be a salary-cap-crippling deal. (For a dose of perspective, the previous season's number one overall pick, Sam Bradford, was guaranteed $50 million on a $78 million deal that's still going this season.)
Fast-forward to 2015, Newton's rookie contract is now over, and four years in, what do we know about him?
Well, we know that he's a physical tour de force, as displayed by his 115 combined rushing and passing touchdowns in his first four seasons. (Only Dan Marino and Peyton Manning had more in their first four seasons.) We also know that mentally and from an intangible standpoint, he's had his issues handling losing and executing winning football at the high level that his peers in the "2011-2012 Young QB Influx" have (Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick).
It begs the question "Other than knowing he can play in the league, do we know that much more about Cam Newton now than we did in 2011?" Honestly, not really. He's led his team to two playoff berths in four seasons, winning one playoff game, a game in which Ryan Lindley was the opposing quarterback. (Hell, that playoff berth was the result of a division the Panthers won with a sub .500 record of 7-8-1.)
And despite the cloud of uncertainty swirling over Newton's future as an elite NFL quarterback, it didn't stop the Panthers from giving him a new five-year deal on Tuesday potentially worth $103 million with $60 million in guaranteed money. The first three seasons of the deal will pay Newton more than $67 million, and the overall deal puts him behind only Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger in average annual income over the life of their respective contracts.
Rodgers and Roethlisberger have both won Super Bowls, Roethlisberger multiple Super Bowls. Rodgers is the reigning NFL MVP.
Newton beat Ryan Lindley in a playoff game.
"I've never been the type to compare and contrast wages more so [than] comparing and contrasting the most important stat of all of sports, and that's wins and losses," said Newton, ironically, at his press conference yesterday — it's ironic because his record in his first four seasons stands at a pedestrian 30-31-1.
Newton's new deal, still so very speculative, highlights the NFL's new "big risk" — locking in perceived "franchise" quarterbacks to their second NFL contracts. The aforementioned rookie wage scale protects teams from cataclysmic screw-ups in the first round. In seasons past, teams like the Titans, Jaguars and Vikings would still be paying dearly for their sins of drafting Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder with high first-round picks. The new wage scale brought salaries in line with experience level and made punting on these "prospects" far less painful for those teams.
Four seasons in, we know survival in the NFL isn't "too much" for Newton, but is winning a Super Bowl? Hell, is winning two playoff games? We don't know, but the Panthers have to find out. They have no choice. On a planet where about a dozen guys play quarterback at a high level, if your team has one who shows hints of that capability, the dynamics of the league force you to pay the bird in hand. And the bird in hand is the most expensive bird.
The Panthers anted up another $60 million (at least) for the next phase of discovery on Cam Newton, and we see that, oftentimes, for the merely competent quarterback with hints of eliteness, the second contract in the NFL is the new rookie contract, an expensive but necessary leap of faith. The odds are that the Panthers will come away from the Newton contract in five years unfulfilled. That's just math. Newton is being paid "Super Bowl winner" money, and there can only be one Super Bowl winner every season.
Russell Wilson has actually won a Super Bowl. Andrew Luck (and his career record of 33-15 with multiple playoff wins) is on the short list of favorites to win one this coming season. Neither of them has signed his second contract yet. If Cam Newton is getting nearly $21 million per year on the hopes spawned by one playoff win in four seasons, then what are those two going to get?
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$23 million? $25 million? Prima nocta on every woman in Seattle and Indianapolis?
Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton. Those are all guys who got big money extensions based largely on being just good enough to entice teams into thinking they could be "the man." None of them have really done anything to assure their teams they can be that guy. On Tuesday, Cam Newton got paid more than all of them with, on the aggregate, a similar level of accomplishment.
Newton's intoxicating physical skills still command a huge price, but the unknowns bring huge risk. But hey, at least he's not Sam Bradford.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.