Cam and Kelvin. Cam and Josh.
The two incidents that riled up the sports world came almost exactly three years apart. Cam Newton publicly confronted Kelvin Benjamin Thursday night before Carolina’s preseason game at Buffalo on Aug. 9, 2018.
On Aug. 10, 2015, Newton had confronted Josh Norman — and done a lot more than that — when Norman was his teammate and had intercepted the quarterback during a training-camp practice in Spartanburg.
Let’s take a closer look at four similarities and four differences in the two confrontations, because they do show clear evidence of how Newton handles stressful situations, then and now.
Same: In both instances, Newton became miffed because of what he believed to be (and correctly so) a lack of respect.
Benjamin, now with Buffalo, ripped Newton in an interview last week with The Athletic. Benjamin derided Newton for a lack of accuracy and general NFL knowledge and said he would have been better off with another quarterback to start his career.
Norman not only intercepted that training-camp pass in 2015 but started strutting down the field the other way in an attempt to score an unofficial touchdown. This went against the unwritten training-camp rules, but so did Newton’s ill-considered attempt to tackle the cornerback moments later.
Different: The most obvious difference is that Newton never put his hands on Benjamin Thursday night. He tried to shake Benjamin’s hand and got rejected. Then he carefully put his hands behind his back, stuck his chin out and began to have a conversation (and obviously not a happy one) with his former teammate, who kept disengaging and walking away from him.
With Norman, Newton not only got involved in an actual fight, but he and Norman both ended up on the ground in what could have turned into a devastating injury for either one. If Newton had torn up his knee then, there would have been no Super Bowl appearance six months later.
As Norman told me once about what happened just after his interception return on Newton: “I stiff-armed him, but I didn’t think I stiff-armed him that hard. I just thought I was going to score or whatever. And then I threw the ball. And here he is, all 6-foot-5 of him, and he was like, ‘Throw that ball at me again!’ I was like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ and then we were clutching each other. I grabbed his face mask and then somehow his helmet came off. He grabbed me. ... It was mayhem.”
Same: Linebacker Thomas Davis was Forrest Gump for both incidents. He was the one who first talked to Benjamin Thursday night in pregame. Then Newton came over, started talking to Benjamin himself and waved Davis away so that the conversation could be one-on-one. Davis was also on the field for Norman’s interception and involved in trying to calm everyone down after tempers flared.
Different: Davis had nothing to break up on Thursday night, because there was no fight. In Spartanburg, however, I still remember him screaming: “That’s stupid!” once the altercation was brought to a halt.
Same: Newton knew both Benjamin and Norman quite well, which is partly why I think he took offense in both cases. The three of them were teammates with Carolina at the same time. Newton truly took Benjamin under his wing as a rookie wide receiver in 2014 and said only days before Benjamin was traded last season that “when you want people in your foxhole, Kelvin Benjamin is the person that you want.”
Different: While Newton and Benjamin trained together, ate together and generally gave every impression of being close friends for more than three years until Benjamin got traded, Newton and Norman were not close (although they did become better friends after the 2015 fight — they made up only a few hours after it happened).
“Cam’s a good guy, but we didn’t really talk,” Norman once told me, referring to the duo’s relationship before their fight. “We had an admiring respect. A respect, like, a sniffing kind of respect. You know when two dogs sniff and they know what’s good and then they go their different ways? And don’t really play with each other? Like that. I just wanted to one-up him, and he just wanted to one-up me.”
Same: Observer photographers happened to get the best footage of each incident, and in each case those visuals went viral.
In 2015, David Foster III took several still photos of the fight that no one else had. The one published the most often showed Newton with his helmet off and a fierce smile, throwing Norman to the ground. “He had a piece of me, and I tried to sling him,” Norman said. “I tried to hip-toss him. And they got that picture of him smiling and he’s got me clutched up — of all pictures to get!”
On Thursday night, the Observer’s Jeff Siner had the best video of Newton and Benjamin’s minute-long confrontation. The words couldn’t be heard, but the body language was pretty clear. Within less than 24 hours, the video was viewed on Twitter more than 3 million times and repeatedly analyzed on ESPN as if it were the Zapruder film.
Different: The visuals make the point well — Newton has grown up some over the past three years. He and Norman were both at fault three years ago, but I thought Newton was the most at fault. He got hot-headed and physical in a situation where it absolutely was not warranted. He was justified in yelling at Norman, sure, but he should have never let his anger escalate into a full-blown wrestling match.
Against Benjamin, I thought Newton handled himself beautifully. He didn’t speak behind Benjamin’s back. He confronted him in person, man to man. He tried to shake Benjamin’s hand. He got some of his points across.
And because Benjamin obviously didn’t want to hear it, wasn’t going to engage and wasn’t going to ultimately make things any better — “I wasn’t even trying to listen,” Benjamin would say later — Newton decided not to escalate things. He instead brushed Benjamin off, waving his hand at him in apparent disgust and then walking away.
Newton has always marched to his own drum. He has never been perfect. But for a quarterback who will be 30 on his next birthday, I thought Thursday night was a welcome sign of maturity.