Cam Newton has been the face of the Panthers franchise for nearly a decade. Since being drafted first overall in 2011, he’s won an MVP award, accounted for 240 regular-season touchdowns, and brought the organization to its second Super Bowl. Doubling as a supremely talented passer and the most dangerous red zone rusher at any position in the NFL, Newton has been the driving force behind Carolina’s offense. He is, without question, the most important player in the franchise’s 25-year history. Which is why it’s so hard to imagine that at just 30 years old, his days in Carolina might be numbered.
On Tuesday, The Athletic’s Joe Person reported that Newton’s current foot issue, which forced him to miss Sunday’s game against the Cardinals and already has him ruled out for this week’s showdown with the Texans, is believed to be a Lisfranc injury that could keep the quarterback sidelined for some time. Newton originally hurt his foot during the Panthers’ third preseason game before aggravating it against Tampa Bay in Week 2—but that may not even be the most significant health problem he’s currently battling. In January, Newton had surgery to fix a shoulder injury that gave him problems during the second half of the 2018 season, and he didn’t start throwing again until June. Following a lackluster performance against the Rams in Week 1, Newton was awful during a Thursday night national TV showcase against the Bucs, in which he completed only 25 of 51 pass attempts and missed multiple open throws in terrible fashion.
Whether Newton’s accuracy issues stem from his recovering shoulder or ailing foot is almost irrelevant at this point. Either way, his repeated health problems, the on-field miscues they’ve caused, and his current contract situation likely have the Panthers considering whether it’s time to move on and start anew at quarterback. Newton is set to count for $21.1 million against the salary cap in 2020, but only $2 million of that is guaranteed. If the Panthers chose to release Newton or (more likely) trade him after this season, they could do so with almost no financial penalty. It’s way too early to throw dirt on a quarterback who won the MVP and oversaw a 15-1 season just four years ago, but after talking to several people close to the Panthers organization over the past couple of weeks, it’s starting to feel like this has become a real consideration. So rather than try to predict how the next four months will shake out, let’s take a look at five possible ways the 2019 Panthers season could unfold—and what each iteration would mean for Newton’s future in Carolina.
Scenario 1: Backup quarterback Kyle Allen guides the Panthers to a 2-1 record in their next three games. Newton returns following Carolina’s Week 7 bye and leads the team to the playoffs.
This would be the ideal outcome for the Panthers’ brass—and for Newton. Allen was brilliant last Sunday in a 38-20 win over Arizona, completing 73.1 percent of his passes while throwing four touchdowns and averaging 10 yards per attempt. In two career starts, Allen has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions and averaged 9.2 YPA. As far as backup QBs go, Carolina could do a lot worse than the 2018 undrafted free agent (which makes the team’s decision to take Will Grier in the third round of the 2019 draft even more confounding). But even if Allen can keep the Panthers alive in a short stint under center, his ceiling is nowhere near that of a healthy Cam Newton. During Carolina’s 6-2 start last season, Newton showed just what a force this offense can be when he’s at full strength. Coordinator Norv Turner and a supporting cast that includes all-world running back Christian McCaffrey, speedster receivers Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore, a quality offensive line, and ageless tight end Greg Olsen give Allen plenty to work with, but Newton’s abilities as a passer and runner would still elevate this offense considerably.
Carolina’s next three games are at the Texans, home against the Jaguars, and at the Buccaneers. A 2-1 record over that stretch with Allen at QB is conceivable, and in a mediocre NFC South with no Drew Brees for at least the next month, the struggling Falcons, and the nightmarish Bucs, a 3-3 start should keep the Panthers alive in the division race. If Newton can use the next month to heal, come back strong, and oversee a trip to the postseason, he’ll almost certainly be back in 2020—which is what Carolina should want. Newton’s $21.1 million cap hit ranks 13th among quarterbacks in 2020; if he’s healthy, that’s an absolute bargain in a league where Jared Goff is set to make $36 million next season. By signing Newton to a five-year, $103 million extension after his fourth season, the Panthers ensured the final years of his deal would be a relative steal compared to the rest of the market. And they have to be hoping they can take advantage of those savings for one final year before they start talking extensions.
Scenario 2: Allen and the Panthers go 2-1 in the next three games. Newton returns following the bye, and his early-season struggles continue.
Even if Newton takes the next month to recover, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be fully healed and back to his old self by late October. Lisfranc injuries typically require surgery and can keep players out for months at a time. Eagles defensive tackle Malik Jackson went on injured reserve after suffering a similar injury in Week 1, and after undergoing surgery for his Lisfranc injury in February, Ravens rookie receiver Marquise Brown didn’t pass a physical until late July. It’s possible that the foot will bother Newton for the rest of the season—and that’s not to mention the lingering concerns about his throwing shoulder. If Allen continues to play like anything close to the quarterback we saw against the Cardinals last Sunday, and Newton struggles upon returning, the Panthers will have some decisions to make.
Even in a watered-down NFC South, the Panthers won’t be able to compete with the likes of New Orleans and Atlanta if Newton flounders. Carolina has made the playoffs once since the team’s Super Bowl berth following the 2015 season; if head coach Ron Rivera falls short again, he could be out of a job. It’s possible that Rivera will ultimately decide that a healthy, effective Allen gives the Panthers a better chance than an unhealthy or inaccurate version of Newton. There’s only so much we can glean from Allen’s performance against a lackluster Cardinals secondary, but Turner laid out a pretty convincing blueprint for how this offense could succeed with his backup QB at the controls. Allen did a majority of his damage between the numbers, especially up the right seam to Olsen. Turner also simplified some of Allen’s decision-making by leaning on play-action throws to that area of the field. On 10 play-action dropbacks, Allen finished 7-of-10 for 119 yards and a touchdown. Along with creating space in the middle of the field, play-action throws often give QBs quick, defined reads that don’t require as much mental processing. That’s perfect for an inexperienced QB making just his second career start.
Even with Turner scheming open receivers, though, Allen’s production wasn’t just the result of cheap, easy throws. He was 12-of-16 for 142 yards with three touchdowns on traditional dropback passes, and his 73.1 completion rate on the day was actually 9.2 percentage points higher than his expected completion rate of 63.8—which shows that Allen was actually much more efficient than his receivers’ separation would normally dictate. Carolina’s scheme and the yards-after-catch ability of its top pass catchers both provide cushy surroundings for any quarterback, but the training wheels were off for Allen. If Newton comes back and performs like he did over the first two weeks, both permutations of this hypothetical—Rivera eventually deciding to replace him with Allen or Newton stumbling for the rest of the season—would probably doom his long-term outlook with the franchise.
Scenario 3: Allen’s performance against Arizona turns out to be a fluke. Carolina loses its next three games, and its season is lost.
Allen’s first two NFL games have shown that he can competently pilot this offense, but it’s still a tiny sample size. And while Carolina’s three games before the bye are all winnable, there are no gimmes among the bunch. Beating Deshaun Watson and Houston would be a challenge even with Newton at 100 percent; Jacksonville recently stumbled into its own backup QB magic with Gardner Minshew II; and Tampa Bay’s defense under new coordinator Todd Bowles has been one of the surprises of the season so far. All three teams have established defensive coordinators who are capable of confounding an inexperienced quarterback. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Allen turn in at least one nightmare game in the next month.
This stretch also features plenty of quality pass rushers, and injuries along the offensive line have forced the Panthers to do some shuffling up front. Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner exited Sunday’s game against Arizona with an ankle injury, and it looks like Carolina will address that problem by moving left tackle Daryl Williams into Turner’s spot and replacing Williams with second-round pick Greg Little. Little has all the tools to emerge as the team’s long-term answer at left tackle, but Whitney Mercilus, Yannick Ngakoue, and the red-hot Shaq Barrett is one hell of a gantlet for a rookie tackle’s first three games.
If the Panthers fall to 1-5 or 2-4 before the bye, they’d have difficulty finding a path to the playoffs—even during a down year in the NFC South. A lost season in Carolina could lead to major changes at virtually every level of the organization. Rivera’s seat is reportedly hotter than some might think, given his track record with the Panthers. He was hired about three months before Newton was drafted in 2011, and for the past nine seasons their pairing has given the franchise the type of stability that other organizations can only dream about. Rivera is a revered players’ coach and consistently oversees one of the league’s best defenses. Since 2012—the year that Carolina drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly—the Panthers have finished among the top 11 in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA five times, and look well on their way to accomplishing that again this season.
But Rivera and Newton are both holdovers from a previous regime. They were brought to Carolina by former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. The same goes for general manager Marty Hurney, who was fired by Carolina in 2012, brought back on an interim basis when Dave Gettleman was let go in July 2017, and elevated into the role full-time in February 2018 out of what seems like pure convenience. David Tepper finalized his purchase of the team about four months later, and while he’s yet to make any sweeping changes, his influence on the front office has already been noticeable. The former hedge fund manager hasn’t been shy about voicing his concerns with the lack of analytics staff in Carolina, and in July the Panthers tapped Taylor Rajack to be their first director of analytics. Hiring an MIT-educated, 27-year-old data scientist for a major role in the team’s personnel department was a significant step in a new direction for this organization—and it probably won’t be the only one.
When someone pays $2.3 billion to buy a football team, that person typically wants to build that franchise in his image. If this season slips away and the Panthers miss the postseason for the third time in the past four years, Tepper could view it as an opportunity to clean house. With that type of franchise reset, it’s easy to envision Newton being shopped and Tepper allowing his new power structure to start over with its quarterback of choice. The Panthers have too much talent to finish this season 3-13 or 4-12, even if Allen struggles. But if they go 6-10 and can get a reasonable draft asset for Newton, they may be in a position to find their new QB in what’s shaping up to be a loaded draft class.
Scenario 4: Newton’s foot injury and lingering doubts about his shoulder cause him to miss extended time and possibly the rest of the season.
So far, all of these timelines have been written from the Panthers’ perspective. But Newton also has his own self-interest to worry about. If Cam comes back at any point this season, his camp knows that he might be lobbying for his next job. They also know that he’d do himself no favors by performing that audition at less than 100 percent. The Panthers and Newton’s camp have reportedly already had disagreements about the severity of his injury, and we’ve seen situations like this take a turn in the past. With only one year remaining on his San Antonio Spurs contract, Kawhi Leonard chose to sit out for the second half of the 2017-18 NBA season despite being medically cleared. It’s not a one-to-one comparison, but Newton could decide that the best option for his future—especially if the Panthers are out of contention by Halloween—is to similarly spend this season getting his body right before trying to earn his next contract. That would all but guarantee that Newton’s Carolina tenure comes to an end.
Because he’s unlikely to be released, Newton may lack final say over the team he plays for next season in this scenario. And if another franchise gives up significant draft capital to acquire him, that club may want assurances that Newton intends to sign an extension upon arriving. It’s also possible that Newton’s injury concerns could drive the price down, though, and that a new team would prefer to take a wait-and-see approach that potentially involves using the franchise tag in 2021 rather than handing Newton a new deal worth more than $30 million annually. In any event, this hypothetical depends entirely on his health. If Newton feels right after Carolina’s Week 7 bye, it would seem to be in his best interest to show both the Panthers and other teams that he’s still capable of playing at a high level.
Scenario 5: Carolina wins its next three games, and Allen plays so well that Rivera decides it’s best to ride with him for the rest of the season.
If Newton is deemed healthy enough to play after the Panthers’ bye week, a quarterback controversy is the most unlikely of all five scenarios—but it’s not impossible. We’ve already discussed how well Allen has played in limited action, and Carolina’s offensive approach this season hasn’t been constructed around Newton’s strengths. Newton carried the ball five times for negative-2 yards in the Panthers’ first two games. That strategy could change if the coaches feel like Newton is back at full strength, but in this version of the offense the difference between Newton and the best version of Allen seems marginal at best. If Allen is rolling and the Panthers are sitting at 4-2, Rivera could decide that it’s in the team’s best interest to stick with the hot hand.
A factor in any decision will be Rivera looking out for his own job security. And the Panthers’ overall roster talent could provide a sense of urgency for Rivera to keep Allen in place. The rest of this team is built to compete right now. McCaffrey looks better than ever so far this season, and the Panthers’ young receivers both showed what they’re capable of in last week’s win. The offensive line might be shaky in Little’s first couple of starts at left tackle, but considering how Williams had struggled, Carolina’s best starting five was likely always going to include Little taking over there eventually. Rivera’s defense has also looked excellent through three games: Beyond the usual suspects, rookie edge rusher Brian Burns already has 12 disrupted dropbacks and looks like a star in the making on a defensive front that currently ranks fourth in adjusted sack rate.
If Newton does get Wally Pipped, it would all but seal his fate in Carolina. It’d also raise interesting questions for the Panthers moving forward. Rolling with a quarterback who was an undrafted free agent is risky long term. You can count the number of successful undrafted QBs on two hands. (Oddly enough, the Panthers had one with Jake Delhomme.) And no matter how well Allen plays in stretches, history says he’s more likely to be Shaun Hill than Kurt Warner. Of course, Allen isn’t like most other undrafted QBs. After completing a historic career at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, he was rated as the no. 1 pro-style QB in the 2014 recruiting class. Allen’s college career at Texas A&M got off to a hot start before he was replaced by Kyler Murray, transferred to Houston, and drifted into obscurity. But there’s no denying his raw ability.
For now, though, Allen’s future in Carolina isn’t nearly as important as Newton’s is. And based on the current situation, it’s starting to feel like his time with the Panthers could soon come to a close. A player with Newton’s talent and résumé deserves the benefit of the doubt. He could return after the bye, look like a star while leading the Panthers to the playoffs, and make all of this conjecture seem stupid in retrospect. But of the five timelines presented above, only that ideal first scenario would seem certain to end with Newton reprising his role as the Panthers’ starting quarterback next season and going forward.
No matter what happens for the rest of the season, the doubts about Newton’s longevity in Carolina are undeniable. The next three months will shape the Panthers franchise—this season and well beyond.