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The joy of Cam: Don’t overthink what’s happening, Carolina Panther fans. Just smile.
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The joy of Cam: Don’t overthink what’s happening, Carolina Panther fans. Just smile.

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CHARLOTTE — There was a time when Cam Newton was a polarizing figure in the Carolinas.

But that time is long past.

Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and that was the case with Cam Newton. Panthers fans — heck, even Panthers non-fans — are monumentally grateful that Newton and his original team are together again.

It didn’t hurt that he accounted for touchdowns the first two times he touched the football in his nine snaps against Arizona, of course — a feat so unlikely that, as Newton said after the game: “I’m telling you, you can’t make up a lie this good.”

But even before that, Newton’s return to the place he starred from 2011 to 2019 had brought along with it that childlike joy he so often spread. Panthers fans haven't been this happy since January 2016, when a Newton-led Carolina team destroyed another batch of Arizona Cardinals, 49-15, in the NFC championship game.

That was nearly six years ago, and the joy had gradually been leeched out of the Panthers since that time. It happened bit by bit, gradually enough that you didn’t know it was leaving at first. But after a couple of years, it was hard to remember what it once felt like when Newton was giving away footballs and Luke Kuechly was tackling everybody and every Sunday thrummed with purpose and possibility.

But the joyride has begun again. Newton's comeback has crossed the sports border, with the news reaching not only the hard-core fans but also the casual ones and the ones who mainly need to know when the next Super Bowl is so that they can set the Super Bowl party date (Feb. 13, 2022, if you’re curious).

At his daddy-daughter dance Friday night, Panthers coach Matt Rhule said, he answered this question from 5- and 7-year-old girls who first wanted to know if he was the Panthers’ head coach: “Is Cam really back?”

There was lots more of that. That guy who always griped about Newton's postgame outfits said he didn’t care what he wore anymore, he just didn’t want to see Sam Darnold at quarterback any longer. Newton-related conversations dominated discussions at a wedding. Common denominator? Everyone was smiling.

Rhule is letting Newton be himself, and life has matured the 32-year-old Newton a little, too. It’s been a nice combination, although Rhule wants it to be known he’s not trying to tamp down Newton’s enormous personality.

“I don’t want Cam Lite,” Rhule noted Monday. “I want Full Cam.”

He’s getting it, and the wave hasn’t crested yet. Fans wrote on Twitter that they cried when Newton scored his first touchdown Sunday. The one time Steph Curry looked happy in the aftermath of Golden State’s narrow loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday night was when asked him whether he had seen any of the Panthers’ 34-10 win before his own game started.

Of course Curry had, and pronounced it “surreal.” Curry, a longtime huge fan of Newton, said Newton had “breathed life” into the Panthers’ building.

This won’t last forever. Nothing does. In fact, it could end not long after Christmas if Carolina doesn’t make the playoffs. And it could end badly once more, undone by injury or a losing streak. We’re only guaranteed seven more games of this Cam-eo appearance.

The Panthers (5-5) still have an average record, as Newton pointed out after the game. All of this is pretty fragile.

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There’s a tendency, especially for those of us who follow the game closely, to start getting heavy into the analytics of it whenever something unexpected like this happens.

You know what I mean:

What can Cam Newton still do? What can’t he do? When he starts against Washington on Sunday in Charlotte — as he inevitably must — will his old coach Ron Rivera have schemed up some ways to make him look silly? How much of the playbook does No. 1 really know or feel comfortable with? (“Two touchdowns worth,” Newton deadpanned in response to that question Sunday).

In a larger sense, though, those questions aren’t as important as we like to think they are. The poet Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

That’s where we are with Newton right now. He still has his on- and off-field faults, of course. But I’ve forgotten a fair amount of what he said and did the first time around, or what all of his injuries were. You probably have, too.

This one is about feel. And man, he makes you feel good, doesn’t he? His smile is as contagious as ever.

We’re remembering that now. And so is Newton, who’s recently been unemployed for almost three months, and is now remembering how much fun it is to interact with teammates and fans.

“I am just floating at an all-time high frequency,” Newton said after the Arizona win. “It’s almost scary.”

He also said, about his first touchdown Sunday and the “I’m back!!” helmet-off scream that drew the most fantastic unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in Panthers history: “Well, I’ll put it like this. This time last week I was eating a bowl of cereal, you feel me?”

He also said, when asked about his postgame attire: “You’ve got to catch up to my mustard, you dig?”

I don’t know much about fashion, but in this case, I do dig.

The Panthers haven’t had a real moment for a long time — not a great one, anyway.

Here it is.

Don’t overthink it.

Just pass the mustard, and enjoy.

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