Has Cam Newton played his last game for the Panthers?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers

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Newton went on injured reserve and has no guaranteed money remaining on his contract.

Cam Newton won’t be returning to the Panthers’ lineup anytime soon, if ever. Carolina put its starting quarterback on injured reserve in advance of a Week 10 showdown with the Packers, ending his 2019 regular season after only two games due to a foot injury.

That decision puts a middling franchise at a crossroad. Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP, has only one year and no guaranteed money remaining on his contract. His replacement, former undrafted free agent Kyle Allen, won his first four games as a starter in his stead. Allen has since hit a rough patch and has the Panthers on a four-game skid. Now coach Ron Rivera has been fired and any hopes for the postseason are shot.

All that turmoil makes moving on from Newton via trade an interesting possibility. It would likely bring some draft assets back in return while saving the team more than $19 million in salary cap space in 2020.

A Newton trade or release seemed unheard of four years ago when the dual-threat passer rallied his team to a 15-1 regular season record and a victory in the NFC Championship. His Panthers have stagnated since then; he’s an even 23-23 as a starter in the three-plus years since.

In that span, they’ve missed the postseason twice — a third miss is on the way — and gotten a new owner who may be looking to make a splash. David Tepper bought the franchise from a scandal-embroiled Jerry Richardson after a wildly successful finance career based predicated on bold moves. He already moved on from Rivera and could make another such deal by swapping out his starting QB.

So what are the odds Carolina moves on from its all-time passing leader?

Christian D’Andrea: 50 percent (was 20 percent before Rivera’s firing)

There’s some logic to moving on from a former MVP who is only 30 years old. Newton’s breakthrough 2015 looks more like an oasis in a desert of mediocrity the further it gets in the rear view mirror. In the 3.5 years since, he’s completed less than 60 percent of his passes, thrown 44 interceptions in 46 starts, and averaged only 6.9 yards per attempt. Of the 42 quarterbacks who’ve thrown at least 500 passes in that span, Newton’s 82.6 passer rating ranks 33rd — just beneath Joe Flacco and Josh McCown but just ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Blake Bortles.

These are all numbers that likely make a man with an analytical background like Tepper’s very uneasy. With Rivera gone, there’s reason to believe firing a head coach but not cleaning house would be a half measure where a full one is needed. There’s a not-insignificant chance Newton wears a color other than teal for the first time in his NFL career come 2020.

That might be a rash decision whose risks outweigh its potential rewards. Newton’s top gear puts him on a completely different plane than those guys. While it may be panning for fool’s gold to hope he’ll ever be the same player he was — especially as nagging injuries have conspired to sap a little bit more of his strength every year — he still brings plenty to the table.

Newton’s 2020 cap number is a relatively affordable $21.1 million. Combine that with the paltry six-figure/low seven-figure number Allen will receive as an exclusive rights restricted free agent, and you’ve got a QB rotation that would likely cost the Panthers less than the Jaguars will pay Nick Foles next fall.

That’s a fair price to keep a reliable QB tandem in town, and few teams understand the value of a useable backup more than the Panthers right now. If Newton doesn’t work out, he can leave in free agency the following year without Carolina owing him anything. If he does — and the team still believes in Allen as its future — the club could still move him before the trade deadline to a needy team with postseason aspirations and a shaky passing offense.

There isn’t much incentive to release Newton. Trading him while his value may never have been lower isn’t likely to bring the kind of return for which the Panthers would hope. If some team — i.e. the Bears — bowls Carolina over with an offer, Newton could be gone. Otherwise there’s little risk involved with keeping Newton around and seeing what he can do after a full year of rehab.

James Dator: 45 percent

Never, ever underestimate the possibility of the Panthers doing something monumentally stupid — and make no mistake, moving on from Newton would be colossally idiotic. Newton is the first and only true, franchise quarterback the team has ever had, and it took them almost 20 years to draft him.

That said, there are salary cap and coaching issues at play too. Now that the Panthers decided to part ways with Rivera (and likely general manager Marty Hurney by extension), there is a plausible scenario where a new leadership team wants “their guy” to be the quarterback moving forward. Newton will eat up a sizable chunk of the team’s cap space next season, and it might seem prudent on paper to free up that money and get some draft picks in exchange.

Should this happen then the Panthers deserve the next decade of mediocrity. The team’s defense and Christian McCaffrey are good enough that they won’t see a top-five pick anytime soon, so they’ll limp along to a series of 6-10 and 7-9 seasons with Kyle Allen or whomever at the helm until someone finally gets fed up and lets the team tank.

On a personal level, moving on from Newton is just gross. The front office retained their jobs on his back for the last eight years, floundering to give their franchise QB decent receivers or an offensive line of note. He still went on to take them to a Super Bowl and become the best passer in team history despite every card in the beck being stacked against him. Newton never threw the organization under the bus, even when they deserved it. Turnabout is fair play and they deserve to stick with him now.

But football is a cruel, harsh business sometimes run by total idiots who can’t see the forest for the trees — so a scenario absolutely exists where he’s gone by the draft. If Newton is traded to another team they deserve to kick the crap out of Carolina every year until Newton eventually retires.

What does this mean for the Panthers going forward?

D’Andrea: Two questions for you, James.

  1. What do you think Tepper’s presence means to the franchise and how much he’s ready to take the wheel after leaving things relatively stable in his first year as owner?
  2. What you think the Panthers would do with the extra cash/assets the team would glean from moving on from Newton?

Dator: Tepper was resolutely behind Newton when he took over as owner, largely taking the approach that he would support whatever his football staff believed was the right. It’s still early to put a pin on what Tepper really believes in as owner, however. This is still the honeymoon phase, and there’s no doubt he’s monitoring how fans are reacting to Newton being hurt.

In terms of what the team would do with potential assets — that really depends on who the GM is. There’s a scenario where I can envision them finally building from the inside out and shoring up their offensive line before trying to find a quarterback, but fans are also growing weary of mediocrity. If the Panthers decide to part ways with Newton they better have an answer, and fast.

Remember when the Chargers let Drew Brees go to New Orleans? That didn’t sting very much because Philip Rivers is excellent. If that same scenario plays out and the Panthers don’t have a Rivers-like QB to insert then there are no depths of how upset fans will be. The big problem: The team is winning right now.

Some questions for you, since you don’t have a vested interest as a fan.

  1. Is there a scenario you see where the Panthers can compete in the next five years without Newton?
  2. Looking ahead to the draft: Is there any way the Panthers could conceivably find another franchise QB quickly?

D’Andrea: I think the Panthers could be a couple of impact defensive players away from being able to succeed with a caretaker QB. Hell, they hit the midway point of the season 5-3 with Allen playing roughly as well as late-stage Andy Dalton. McCaffrey’s cheat code abilities out of the backfield should boost any quarterback, and adding another few difference makers to the core of Luke Kuechly, Brian Burns, Donte Jackson, Kawann Short, and a potentially re-signed Mario Addison could mire opponents long enough for an average QB to squeak out a series of wins. The last two guys on that list are starting to get old, though — so Carolina would have to make that move soon.

Finding another franchise quarterback, especially without a top-10 pick, will be tough but not impossible. In recent years we’ve seen players like Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Teddy Bridgewater, Jacoby Brissett, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Russell Wilson, and Nick Foles fall to the back end of the first round or deeper. The Panthers could also take a chance on a rehabilitation project on the free agent market like Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, if they want to swing hard in 2020. Neither path is ideal. I like the draft idea far more than trying to break a middling QB’s bad habits, especially when you consider the contract costs involved, but Carolina has options.

The Panthers started 5-1 without Newton in the lineup in 2019 and jumped into the thick of the NFC playoff race behind Allen, stout defense, and McCaffrey’s MVP-like performance. That fell apart, though. Now the team is a rudderless, sinking ship that’ll be eliminated from playoff contention soon.

Rivera’s team could wind up stuck in the league’s middle class as 2019 winds to a close; not good enough for the postseason but not ready to rebuild either. That’ll push some serious questions about this team’s future to the forefront of its offseason planning. All things considered, it makes sense for Newton to play out his contract in Charlotte — but asking the Panthers to make the logical choice isn’t always a safe bet.

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