Cam Newton’s timeline to return to Carolina has been murky since mid-September, and on Tuesday it became clear that he may never come back. Newton has been placed on injured reserve, prematurely ending a second season in a row—this time after playing just two games. He suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot in the team’s third preseason game in August, but started the regular season before exacerbating it in the Panthers’ Week 2 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He hasn’t played since, and nearly two months after aggravating the injury, the Panthers essentially pulled the plug on Newton’s return. Technically Newton could come off of injured reserve in the playoffs, but the overwhelming odds are that Newton’s season is over.
“For the past seven weeks, Cam has diligently followed a program of rest and rehab and still is experiencing pain in his foot,” general manager Marty Hurney said in a statement. “He saw two foot specialists last week who agreed that he should continue that path prescribed by the team’s medical staff, and that it likely will take significant time for the injury to fully heal. … At this time, we have decided that the best decision to reach the goal of bringing the foot back to 100 percent is to place Cam on injured reserve.”
The move means that Kyle Allen will start at quarterback for the rest of Carolina’s season. The Panthers are 5-3 and in second place behind the Saints in the NFC South, and behind the 7-2 Seahawks, 6-3 Vikings, and 5-3 Rams for a wild-card spot. The decision may not move the needle for Carolina’s playoff hopes. They were 0-2 with Newton and have gone 5-1 without him, and their lone loss came against the 49ers, the last unbeaten team in football.
The larger question is the one looming over Cam’s future. The five-year contract extension Newton signed in 2015 expires at the end of next season. Newton, who turns 31 in May, signed that deal when the franchise was owned by Jerry Richardson, who has since sold the team in disgrace, to new owner David Tepper. Last season, Newton played through a lingering injury to his throwing shoulder that sapped his arm strength for weeks. He was shut down only when the Panthers’ season was effectively over, and he was barely over the shoulder issues when the foot injury occurred. With all of these unknowns around Newton’s health entering the final year of his deal, is Cam’s time in Carolina coming to a close?
Most likely, the Panthers will keep Newton. Cam’s cap hit next season is $21.1 million, and $19.1 million of that would be freed if they traded or cut him. That number looks large, but it’s not much for an NFL quarterback. Of the 18 franchise quarterbacks on veteran contracts, Newton’s $21.1 million cap hit is set to be the 15th-most expensive in 2020, according to Spotrac. It’s less than Washington is set to pay for Alex Smith, who may never play pro football again. The only veteran starting quarterbacks in line to have a smaller cap hit than Cam in 2020 are Carson Wentz, Andy Dalton, and Tom Brady. At that price, Newton doesn’t need to play like he did in his 2015 MVP season to be worth keeping on the team. As long as he is healthy, his deal is a bargain, not a burden.
Allen’s play down the stretch will be a major factor in Carolina’s decision. In his six starts this season, Allen has ranged from stellar (261 yards and four touchdowns on 26 attempts against Arizona) to serviceable (181 yards on 30 attempts in a 34-27 win over the Jaguars) to sad (seven sacks, three interceptions, and zero touchdowns against San Francisco). No matter how well Allen plays, though, it’s unlikely that a healthy Allen is deemed superior to a healthy Cam. Whether or not the Panthers earn a playoff spot, the most conservative course of action may be for Carolina to not rock the boat: Hold on to Cam at a reasonable 2020 salary, hope he is healthy enough to compete, keep Allen onboard as the rare known quantity at backup quarterback, and go with the flow.
While the Panthers likely won’t cut Newton, they could seek a trade partner, and that is where things get interesting. The trade deadline for this season has passed, and while no deals can be completed until the new league year begins in March, teams have agreed on quarterback trades over the winter in each of the past two seasons. In January 2018, the Chiefs agreed to trade Alex Smith to Washington, and in mid-February this year the Ravens arranged to send Joe Flacco to Denver. If the Panthers want to deal Newton, it could happen as soon as two or three months from now.
What Newton would fetch in a trade would be fascinating. Flacco went for a fourth-rounder. Smith went for a third-rounder and another player (cornerback Kendall Fuller) who was drafted in the third round. Newton is better and younger than either of those players, but the compensation could hinge on his health. The team trading for him would likely want to sign a long-term extension with him before agreeing to a deal, but the injury complicates that, too. A team could deal for Newton and hope to convince him to sign long-term during the 2020 season, but if Newton’s recovery lags, the plan could go bust. Still, there are enough teams with rosters otherwise built to contend that are searching for competency at QB (Chicago and Denver come to mind) that Carolina may be able to find someone willing to happily roll with the risk. But that’s also why Newton could stay put. The moment the Panthers trade Newton to a contender needing a QB, they become one themselves. Carolina’s best option may be to wait and see how this all plays out, which means we may have to as well.