If Cam Newton has played his last game in Carolina, the Panthers will regret it

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

A little less than seven years ago, when it became painfully apparent that Carson Palmer had taken too many hits and gotten too old too quickly, the inevitable fire sale was simply a matter of time and a few phone calls. Palmer was a 33-year-old depreciating asset with the Oakland Raiders, and when he told onlookers there was still “plenty of tread left” on his tires, all you could do was look away and hope the end was more dignified than embarrassing.

This is the story that comes to mind as the rest of the world writes off Cam Newton. I think about Palmer, a player who was so certainly done in the NFL until timing and circumstance delivered him to the right offensive coordinator, with the right surrounding pieces and a clean slate that he badly needed.

I know the anti-Newton crowd doesn’t want to hear this, but I’ll say it anyway: Given the right situation, he’s not done being a high-impact player in the NFL. Let me stress part of that phrase because it’s important.

Given the right situation, the 2015 NFL MVP — who has looked like a shell of himself the past 12 months of his football life — can be a saving grace for a franchise. Maybe it’s not the Panthers, although the current iteration of this team is quite suitable. Certainly, there will be some ideal landing spots for Newton this offseason. And maybe even a place that will allow him to have one more career flourish before his growing critics can write him off.

A foot injury in the preseason hasn't healed for Panthers QB Cam Newton, the reason why he's out for the season and why his future in Carolina is in question. (AP)
A foot injury in the preseason hasn't healed for Panthers QB Cam Newton, the reason why he's out for the season and why his future in Carolina is in question. (AP)
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Perhaps even something as ideal as what Palmer experienced when the Arizona Cardinals acquired him in 2013 at the ripe age of 33. That acquisition should have delivered a few lessons that should weigh on this decision by the Panthers. Chief among them is that Palmer went from a largely talent devoid and mismanaged Raiders franchise to one in Arizona that had a balanced running game, an undoubtable No. 1 wideout in Larry Fitzgerald, a defense stocked with talent and a coaching staff that knew exactly the kind of system that Palmer should be operating. From Day 1, it was crystal clear that Arians not only knew how to use Palmer, but also what kind of offensive talent would suit him in the downslope of his career.

The results: Palmer went from an aging talent who had never quite reached his peak following a 2006 knee injury to a player who threw for at least 4,200 yards in three of the next four seasons. Then at age 36, he put together his second-life opus, notching an All-Pro season that saw him throw for 4,671 yards with 35 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. Ultimately, that would be the best season of his 14-year career. Achieved largely because he landed with a franchise that believed his past uneven play was either an issue with health, coaching, surrounding talent or some combination of all three.

So how does this apply to Newton? Well, start with the statistical analysis that has critics cursing him since his MVP season in 2015. Considering Newton’s health and surrounding talent, the Panthers failed him just as often as he failed the franchise. Jonathan Stewart? He was a fading talent. Kelvin Benjamin? Look at his litany of football problems that didn’t have anything to do with his overall fitness, Newton was arguably the only thing keeping Benjamin in the NFL, a reality we quickly discovered when that relationship ended. Aside from Trai Turner, the offensive line has never been right since, defined by a shuffling set of players and a supposed anchor left tackle spot that featured either middling talent or guys playing out of position. The skill positions? Aside from Greg Olsen, who has strung together consecutive seasons of Pro Bowl-caliber play?

All of which brings us to the salient point: the best team Newton has been a part of since 2015 is the one he is on now. This edition of the Panthers that we’re watching under the guidance of Kyle Allen is the best product that Carolina has put on the field since the Super Bowl. Which makes sense, given that Dave Gettleman was fired as general manager in the summer of 2017 and Marty Hurney has been busy finding the right pieces to accentuate some of the talent that Gettleman accumulated on his way out the door. Christian McCaffrey was meant to be this backfield centerpiece. D.J. Moore was meant to be the true No. 1 wideout Newton had lacked for years. Curtis Samuel was meant to develop into a multitalented player who could actually catch the football (a trait that took root only this past summer). None of which even considers a defense that has been restocked and balanced out with young and veteran talent.

The only thing that didn’t take place in the middle of this grand plan? Newton remaining healthy.

That happens to talented quarterbacks at times. It happened to Palmer. And he wasn’t alone. Go back and look at Kurt Warner’s last two years with the St. Louis Rams and his dark period with the New York Giants. Some people forget about the 2002-2004 stretch that had most believing he had suddenly lost all of his considerable talent and was headed to retirement. One change later, landing with the Cardinals, he underwent a five-year renaissance that reminded people why he had once been a league MVP.

The coaching in those years mattered. The surrounding rosters mattered. And the fact that Newton hasn’t walked onto the field healthy enough to run a Carolina offense that was built for him also matters. And yet, here we are. With Newton’s last 12 months looking awful on his resume, but with the asterisk that he had a serious shoulder and foot problems in that span. So he’s 30 and washed up and Kyle Allen is suddenly the heir apparent at the position, despite the reality that Carolina is a team driven by surging defense and a running back who is possibly the NFL’s MVP.

Stop and consider that for a moment. The Panthers are looking at Newton’s relatively modest $21 million salary in 2020 through the prism of Allen costing the team basically nothing. They’re looking at Allen having a fantastic winning streak through the prism of a clearly hurt Newton losing his last eight starts. And they’re looking at the Panthers’ future as one that needs to move on without the best player in franchise history, yet completely forgetting that the past three seasons have been a process of building the current set of talent to suit Newton.

Some mistakes are being made in that line of thinking. And they’re being skewed by a winning groove that nobody wants to tinker with, combined with a general frustration with Newton’s health. Not to mention stupid things that don’t matter, like Newton’s wardrobe somehow being a piece of data proving that he doesn’t care about being a good football player anymore. If you believe that’s true, then you should still want Newton on another team, even if Allen suddenly falters down the stretch. Which he might, considering that he has been nothing more than a solid game manager for most of this season.

None of this is to say Newton is perfect. His playing style has hurt him at times — and that might be the problem that undermines everything. But it’s worth noting that Newton was off to a fantastic start through eight games in 2018, before lingering issues in a surgically repaired shoulder became an issue. Beyond that and the foot injury from a preseason game that he shouldn’t have been playing in, there’s no denying that Newton has had a three-year run in which the franchise had all sorts of holes that he couldn’t control.

To take that period and ignore the injuries is to suggest that he can’t heal, can’t find a rhythm with a team that seems ideal for his skills, and can’t ever be anything but the shell of a player we’ve seen the past 12 months. That’s a lot of doubt to buy into, particularly when the quarterback who would remain has yet to prove that he can elevate a franchise. Allen hasn’t done that yet. As an exclusive rights player, he’ll still be cheap in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, too. He and Newton could very easily be rostered in 2020, giving the Panthers one more season to make very sure that they aren’t pulling the plug one season too early, rather than one season too late.

Of course, that kind of patience isn’t a popular theme around Newton right now. Things are going well without him, so it feels like he was part of the problem. If the Panthers believe that, Newton will be gone in a few months. He’ll be someone else’s solution. Maybe Matt Nagy with the Chicago Bears or John Elway with the Denver Broncos. Or maybe even Bruce Arians down in Tampa Bay — the Carson Palmer resurrector who would love nothing more than another shot at a distressed asset that still has plenty of upside.

Despite reports to the contrary, Newton can still be that guy. And when this is all over, the Panthers will regret not seeing it.

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