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Don Shula understood how good Cam Newton was. Now QB will try to beat Dolphins again

·4 min read

To underscore how many years Cam Newton has been in the public eye in Carolina, let’s go back to 2013 and the last time the Panthers took a road trip to play the Miami Dolphins.

Of the Panthers’ 22 starters that day, 21 are no longer with the team. All of Newton’s help in that thrilling 20-16 win over Miami on Nov. 24, 2013, has moved on.

Jordan Gross is a farmer. Greg Olsen and Steve Smith are on TV. Mario Addison is still playing and had a sack on Thanksgiving Day for Buffalo. Greg Hardy is fighting in the UFC. Luke Kuechly retired and is fly-fishing somewhere.

But Newton?

He’s back in Carolina, still persevering, still doing surprising things at age 32 and still occasionally playing the Dolphins, whom he faces Sunday in a 1 p.m. game (Fox Sports).

Carolina called a Hail Mary this season when it paid Newton millions to come back in the middle of the year and then handed him the keys to the starting job. He’s done well so far, especially given the degree of difficulty he’s facing. But the Panthers are still a disappointing 5-6 as they head into this road game against 4-7 Miami that Carolina really must win to keep alive their flickering playoff hopes.

I still vividly remember that Panthers-Dolphins game in 2013. I recall it in part because Newton converted a remarkable fourth-and-10 throw to Smith as part of the game-winning, fourth-quarter drive.

I also remember it because my own past and present collided in the postgame, when I ran into former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula in the bowels of the Dolphins’ stadium.

Shula, then 83, was the first NFL coach I ever covered, while living and working in Miami. I was 27 years old.

I had to drive on Don Shula Expressway and past Don Shula’s hotel and steakhouse to get to the Dolphins facility and interview Don Shula. It was intimidating.

But Shula, outwardly gruff, turned out to have a great heart. He treated me with respect that a 62-year-old NFL legend certainly didn’t have to muster up for a young reporter.

When I saw Shula in the stadium in 2013 after Carolina’s win, just about the first thing he said was: “That’s quite a quarterback that you’ve got there.”

In 2013, after a Carolina Panthers victory over the Miami Dolphins in Florida, Cam Newton (left, seated) and former Dolphins coach Don Shula posed for a photo together. Mike Shula (far left, standing) was the Panthers’ offensive coordinator at the time.
In 2013, after a Carolina Panthers victory over the Miami Dolphins in Florida, Cam Newton (left, seated) and former Dolphins coach Don Shula posed for a photo together. Mike Shula (far left, standing) was the Panthers’ offensive coordinator at the time.

Yes, Newton was, and is. You’d think a traditionalist like Shula might not have loved everything about Newton, but he did. Remember, Shula won games in the 1970s with a run-heavy offense featuring Larry Csonka and then in the 1980s with a pass-heavy offense featuring Dan Marino. He knew how to adapt.

In a later interview, in 2015, Shula told me: “Cam is just such a great athlete and a big, strong guy. If he stays healthy and keeps doing all the good things he’s doing, if he keeps getting better like he is — he will be a lock to be a Hall of Famer.”

It certainly didn’t hurt Shula’s perception that his son, Mike Shula, was also a Carolina assistant coach from 2011-17. But the elder Shula — who died at age 90 in 2020 — was always inclined to say what he thought, no matter the consequences.

Newton isn’t yet a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as Shula predicted. A Super Bowl championship would burnish his credentials, and he’s running out of years to get that done.

In 1996, former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula (left) and former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry filmed a promotional spot in Charlotte.
In 1996, former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula (left) and former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry filmed a promotional spot in Charlotte.

At the moment, Newton is just trying to win a start for the Panthers in 2021. The quarterback dismissed most questions about his past in his press conference Friday, saying he wanted to talk about the “issue” in front of the Panthers — namely the Dolphins. Newton did offer up one good quote about the Carolina offense, which failed to get a single point in its two final possessions in last week’s 27-21 loss to Washington.

“Every guy has to have the Wi-Fi password on offense and just be connected,” Newton said.

The Dolphins sport a blitz-centric defense, so Carolina will have the opportunity for some big plays Sunday. Either that will happen, or Newton is about to get sacked five times and commit a couple of turnovers.

But one way or the other, a Panthers-Dolphins game will be in Cam Newton’s hands again, just as it was in Miami in 2013.

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