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Cam Newton deserved a better ending than what the Carolina Panthers gave him

Cam Newton’s white uniform pants never got a spot of dirt on them in his last game as a Carolina Panther. He was standing on the sideline for so long in Tampa that he told a teammate: “My toes are going to sleep.”

No. 1 played exactly one play, in the first quarter, handing the ball off on a reverse in the red zone for a run that gained a modest four yards. Then Newton exited, never to be seen on the field again, as the Panthers frittered away an early lead and got clobbered, 41-17, in their season finale

Newton deserved a better ending than that. For one thing, he should have gotten the ball on 4th-and-inches from the Tampa Bay 2 in the second quarter, when Carolina was already up 7-3 and had a shot at taking an 11-point lead with a touchdown.

Instead, the Panthers let Sam Darnold stay in for the game’s most critical play. Darnold ran the quarterback sneak Newton should have run, mishandled the ball and got blasted for no gain.

That play should have been Newton’s. I asked Panther coach Matt Rhule about the call after the game, and his logic as to why Newton didn’t come into the game sounded convoluted. If the Panthers had only needed more yardage, the coach said, they would have then used the best short-yardage QB runner in NFL history.

“The fourth-and-inches from the one, that was just a quarterback sneak,” Rhule said. “Had it been like maybe fourth-and-1, where it’s going to be a quarterback power (run) or something, that’s kind of Cam’s specialty. But really fourth-and-inches, you’re assuming, you’re figuring, your line is gonna knock them back. And you know, Sam is 6-foot-4, he’ll get the first down…. Looking back, would I have put Cam in there at that point? To me, if it was like a designed quarterback run in the gun, putting him out there made sense. But we just made the call to go quarterback sneak, and I thought it was the right call.”

If we’re quibbling about inches, the Panthers actually list Darnold at 6-foot-3 and Newton at 6-foot-5.

But more than that, how could anyone ever assume this Panther offensive line is “gonna knock them back” in any situation, ever?

As CBS analyst Tony Romo said during the game telecast about the Panthers: “Nobody blocks anyone!”

As Romo also said of the Panthers: “I don’t really love their identity right now as an offense. Like, I don’t know what they are.”

We know what they aren’t, though: They aren’t Cam Newton’s team anymore.

As for Newton’s perspective on that fourth-down play and whether he should have been in for it, he demurred on Monday but was emphatic he can still play at a high level, and not just as a power back.

“I know my skill set is way better than a fourth-and-inches type of person,” he said.

Yes, it was the right decision to start Sam Darnold the last two games. The Panthers needed to find out more about Darnold because he’s still under contract in 2022 and Newton isn’t. (He’s far from retiring, though, saying on Monday he can still play at a high level. Both the Panthers and Newton say they are open to him returning to Carolina, although it seemed more likely he will seek out a better team).

But I would have still used Newton more often Sunday, both because it would have given Carolina a better chance to win and because of his history with the team. A couple more at-bats — what could it have really hurt for a 5-12 team that ended the season on an embarrassing seven-game losing skid?

As it was, Newton played exactly two total plays in Carolina’s final two games — back-to-back Cam-eos. In both, he came in for a single play near the goal line, gained a few yards and then went out. On the next play, ironically, rookie tailback Chuba Hubbard scored a touchdown both times with Darnold as QB, and Newton celebrated in both cases like he had scored himself.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates quarterback Sam Darnold’s touchdown pass to running back Chuba Hubbard during first-quarter action against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fl. on Sunday, January 9, 2022. Newton played only one play in Carolina’s 41-17 loss.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates quarterback Sam Darnold’s touchdown pass to running back Chuba Hubbard during first-quarter action against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fl. on Sunday, January 9, 2022. Newton played only one play in Carolina’s 41-17 loss.

Newton didn’t talk with reporters Sunday in Tampa after Carolina’s lopsided loss. He did speak to reporters Monday by videoconference, however, saying he still could play football at a high level and emphasizing that if he played in 2022 he wanted it to be for a winner — even if he was a backup quarterback.

“If an opportunity presents itself where I don’t necessarily need to play, and it’s about winning,” Newton said, “yeah, I’m willing to do that, too. Because from this point forward, I’m not coming back for no 5-12. I can tell you that now.”

Football has been very good to Newton, and he in turn was very good to the Panthers and to the Charlotte community. He led the Panthers to four playoff seasons, won the NFL MVP award in 2015, headlined countless charity events and made an estimated $133 million over his 11-year career, according to Spotrac.

So this was a tough way to go out, if it was indeed Newton’s last game as a Panther.

Newton, 32, made so little impact in the season finale it was almost like he didn’t play at all. Put it this way: Backup wide receiver Brandon Zylstra threw a pass Sunday, but Newton never did.

“I made a joke to DJ (Moore) during the game,” Newton said. “I was like, ‘Bro, my body doesn’t even feel right, right now. My toes are going to sleep.’”

Signed in November to try to salvage the Panther season from disaster, Newton couldn’t keep the team from hitting the iceberg. But no one else could, either. The Panthers just weren’t good enough, and Newton couldn’t block for himself.

And although I have written that Rhule should get a third year to prove himself, and ultimately still believe that, decisions like the one that kept the ball out of Newton’s hands on fourth-and-inches make me wonder.

Because Newton would have scored, you know. There’s no doubt about that.