The Panthers and Cam Newton were indestructible until they weren't

Oliver Connolly
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

The Carolina Panthers are at a crossroads. On Wednesday they fired their long-time coach, Ron Rivera. Now, the question that has hovered over the team all season is coming to a head: what to do with Cam Newton?

Rivera will rebound, he is a two-time Coach of the Year, and he took the Panthers to a Super Bowl. Want to fix the issues in Cleveland or Dallas or Chicago by getting an adult in the room? Hire Rivera.

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Rivera’s success has fluctuated for a while, but he’s had to deal with frustrations: an injured quarterback; an ownership scandal and subsequent sale; a change in general manager. Just two months ago, the Panthers went 4-0 with an undrafted 23-year old quarterback, Kyle Allen, whose success turned the question of Newton’s future into a fully-fledged media frenzy.

Allen’s form has since collapsed, yet where Newton plays in 2020 and beyond remains an open question. He has been in decline since his MVP run in 2015 – the season the Panthers made and lost the Super Bowl. The eye test alone tells the story, but just to be sure: Newton’s passing efficiency hasn’t topped 20th in the league since that MVP season.

Related: Ron Rivera cut loose by skidding Carolina Panthers after nine seasons

Passing metrics do not account for what made Newton special though. At the peak of his powers, Newton was so hard to stop because of his legs. The Panthers played option football, making every offensive snap a series of one-on-one match-ups. It just so happened that their “one” was bigger, faster and stronger than anything you had. If we played the ET game any time between 2013 and 2017 — you can clone one player to play every position in a life or death game against an incoming alien invasion — Newton was the slam dunk pick for the humans. In fact, the choice was so obvious that you were kind of unsure whether or not he should be suiting up for the aliens themselves.

What was great about Newton was he knew how talented he was – he was unapologetically himself, from his dab to his raucous celebrations. Pearl clutching ensued. The fact that he was a 6ft 5in black man playing quarterback, dressing every gameday like he was attending a costume party from the future, and oozing earned arrogance didn’t endear him to huge swathes of the football-watching public. Letters to the editor came thick and fast, and the talking heads beat the same old drum. Quarterbacks don’t act like that. He is too much of a diva. He dances too much. He sets a bad example. He should spend less time thinking about fashion and more about football.

Some of that was the generational gap between the old and the new. But a lot of what was bubbling beneath the surface was obvious even to the most racially sheltered. Newton hit a weird vortex: he was underappreciated by some; and over-praised by those who saw some of the criticism for what it was: racial bias. We hadn’t seen anything like the Cam show at quarterback before, and everything he did was for show. He was having fun and it was infectious. Newton even left a car wreck with his trademark smile. This guy is indestructible, we thought. Until he wasn’t.

Injuries robbed Newton of a good slice of his peak years. He struggled through 2018 with a nagging shoulder injury that forced him to train away from the team throughout weekly practices. He has missed almost all of this season with a combination of shoulder and foot problems, and it was confirmed on Wednesday that Newton will have surgery on his injured foot. He is expected to recover by March, when his future will likely be decided.

Carolina have an intriguing decision to make. At his best Newton, who is still only 30, is one of the game’s most dynamic playmakers at the most important position in the sport. But can he regain that level? At what point do the injuries sap him of the skill and will that made him such a menace? And if he’s only 75 to 80% of the player he has been in the past, is that worth $19m a year? Would a new coach even want him?

Those are all the questions the Panthers must answer. But there isn’t as much pressure to answer quickly as the internet dialogue suggests. Newton has one year remaining on his contract at a total value of $19m. The Panthers could trade him or release him and incur just $2m in dead cap money, chump change by quarterback standards. It gives the Panthers leverage in trade negotiations: they don’t need to trade him to get out of an albatross of a contract. They could ride out the final year of Newton’s contract, see if he still has the juice to be a top-10 quarterback, and then decide whether to let him walk or not. And they could even roll that decision forwards year-to-year with the franchise tag.

Related: Did the Miami Dolphins pull off the greatest trick in NFL history?

If the team wants to salvage some value out of down years, or just blow it up and start over with a new coach-quarterback combination, they can place Newton on the trade block and at least get some kind of pick back. With his injury record, recent play and contract status, the Panthers are probably looking at receiving a second-round pick, which is better than nothing.

There would be no shortage of interest. Newton would be an immediate upgrade for at least 19 franchises, even if his injury history makes him somewhat of a risk. Would you bet on a banged-up Newton or creaking Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger? The Broncos, Chargers, Bears, Buccaneers, Titans, and Raiders would all have interest.

Perhaps the best answer is for Newton to follow Rivera to his next stop. Carolina had been a beacon for the league to point to as accusations of underrepresentation in leadership positions were hurled from all angles. Together Newton, a black franchise quarterback, and Rivera, a Latino head coach, represented something important. Their relationship remains strong. They came oh-so-close to perfection in Carolina in 2015. Maybe they can take the next step with a fresh start, if Newton can remain healthy. And that, unfortunately, remains a big if.

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