Following a loss to the Buccaneers early this season, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said it was time to do “some real soul searching” because he simply wasn’t performing at a high enough level. Two months after those pointed comments, it’s clear the soul searching must go beyond the guy in Charlotte wearing the No. 1 jersey.
The Panthers announced Tuesday that Newton is being placed on injured reserved. Though surgery is not being considered, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick, who has been dealing with a Lisfranc injury, will now miss the rest of the regular season.
“For the past seven weeks, Cam has diligently followed a program of rest and rehab and still is experiencing pain in his foot,” Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said. “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.
“We have said all along that it is impossible to put a timetable on this injury. Nobody is more frustrated with that fact than Cam. He’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve been around during my 20-plus years in the league. 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.”
Coupled with MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey, current QB Kyle Allen, who is 5-1 as Carolina’s starter, could be good enough to keep the Panthers competitive in the NFC playoff race. However, Allen’s success and Newton’s health status also bring questions about the franchise’s long-term strategy to the forefront.
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How will Panthers handle Cam Newton’s future?
Newton is not the same player who won the NFL MVP award in 2015. In his two outings this season prior to being sidelined by the foot injury, he failed to throw or run for a touchdown and completed 56.2 percent of his passes. He rushed only five times for negative yardage, a telling stat for a dual-threat quarterback who has averaged more than five yards per carry throughout his career.
While Rivera and the Panthers didn’t want to admit it in the moment, Newton was obviously limited physically. The Bucs dared Newton to beat them with his arm, but he was wildly inaccurate. He didn’t take off down the field and stiff-arm defenders. He wasn’t 100 percent — or even close to it.
Now Carolina is left wondering if nearly a decade of games, 3,980 pass attempts and 934 carries have taken their toll. However, there is a more prominent issue than Newton’s sudden drop-off that could eventually end his time with the Panthers. As is often the case in the NFL, it’s all about the money.
It would be a drastic step, but moving on from Newton’s contract wouldn’t be that painful financially. Newton is due to make more than $18 million in base salary next season — the final year on his current deal — and count for $21.1 million against the team’s salary cap. If the Panthers decided to release Newton, though, the dead cap hit would count for just $2 million in 2020 while saving Carolina $19 million to allocate for other gaps in the roster.
If the Panthers want to rebuild, the first step would be handing over the reins to another QB, whether that’s Allen or an outside target, and redistributing the money saved to multiple positions. But a massive shift under center would send ripple effects throughout the organization, starting with the man in charge on the sideline.
Is Ron Rivera attached to Cam Newton?
Rivera became coach of the Panthers in 2011, the same year Newton entered the league. In the short history of the franchise, Rivera owns the best winning percentage of any Carolina coach, including a 15-1 record and Super Bowl berth in 2015, Newton’s MVP season.
There have undoubtedly been several highs throughout Rivera’s tenure, but year-to-year consistency has been elusive. From 2011-18, the Panthers made four playoff appearances, but they also finished with seven or fewer wins in the regular season five times. Just last season, Carolina started 6-2 only to finish 7-9 overall.
Aside from their on-field accomplishments, Rivera and Newton are linked by their contracts. Rivera signed an extension in 2018 to keep him in his current role through 2020, but that deal came on the heels of an 11-5 season and a few months before new Panthers owner David Tepper took over. Rivera’s future, like Newton’s, is far from secure.
There are risks in letting go of a two-time coach of the year, of course. Carolina could easily fall back into irrelevance without Rivera leading the way. All the Panthers have to do is look at an NFC South rival to see the benefits of holding onto a veteran coach. Following three consecutive 7-9 seasons from 2014-16, Sean Payton turned things around with the Saints, going 11-5 in 2017 and 13-3 in 2018, respectively.
Perhaps Rivera will take advantage of his opportunity with Allen. The “will he or won’t he” speculation with Newton has been eliminated, so Rivera can focus on tailoring the game plan to Allen’s strengths. That would continue to separate Rivera from Newton.
And yet, no matter what happens this season with Rivera and Newton, the biggest factor in the Panthers’ future could be someone who never touches a football or calls a play.
Does David Tepper want to clean house?
When Tepper purchased the Panthers for an NFL-record $2.275 billion in July of 2018, he said the top priority is winning, so it’s no surprise he wasn’t thrilled with how Carolina’s 2018 campaign ended.
The Panthers dropped seven of their last eight games, defeating the Saints in a meaningless Week 17 contest to avoid an 0-8 second half of the season. Those losses reportedly frustrated Tepper and made him consider major organizational changes in December. He became concerned with the lack of analytics usage and the franchise’s old school methods, according to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora.
That old school label can certainly be applied to Rivera and Hurney, who replaced Dave Gettleman as the interim GM in 2017 before taking over full time in February of 2018. (This is Hurney’s second stint as GM after holding the same position from 2002-2012.) Hurney hasn’t been terrible in handling personnel responsibilities, but his job performance hasn’t been incredibly inspiring, either.
Newton’s injury could trigger those changes Tepper apparently considered last year. The quarterback, the coach, the general manager — the opening is there if Tepper wants to put his stamp on Carolina football. He avoided the new owner syndrome initially, but is he now ready to put “his guys” in charge of the operation?
It all comes back to the three-time Pro Bowler who has been the face of the Panthers since he emerged from Auburn and made Carolina matter on a national scale. There is no time to waste. The soul searching starts now.