Is Cam Newton really coming back to the Panthers in 2020, or did we just get played?

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Head coach Matt Rhule has stated his excitement to work with <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/24788/" data-ylk="slk:Cam Newton">Cam Newton</a> this season. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Head coach Matt Rhule has stated his excitement to work with Cam Newton this season. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

The future of Cam Newton as a member of the Carolina Panthers has been a subject of speculation seemingly since he played his last down in 2019. After myriad injury-related absences and/or slip in his play, it was worth wondering whether he’d retain his status as the unquestioned franchise quarterback.

That only became more pronounced as owner David Tepper began to remake the football side of the Panthers business according to his will.

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National media insiders, notably those at NFL Network, have spoken with some degree of certainty that Newton would be on the move this offseason. Yahoo Sports’ own Charles Robinson reported Monday that the Panthers are open for business on the trade market and their long-time quarterback’s future remained “undecided.”

Given what Tepper has said publicly, that sounds about right. Following a public declaration from Newton at the Super Bowl radio row circuit that he expected to be back with the Panthers, Tepper declined to give such assurances. The man in charge has, at best, put an “if healthy” asterisk on every statement he’s made about the best quarterback in his franchise’s history.

With all that in mind, the report Tuesday morning that the Panthers will move forward with Cam Newton — along with new head coach Matt Rhule’s answers to the media at the NFL Scouting Combine seeming to confirm that — came as quite a shock. 

Among other notes of support, Rhule said, “I am unbelievably excited to get a chance to work with Cam. He’s an impressive man and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him. He’s doing a great job. I’m excited to get him healthy.” Rhule wouldn’t commit to Newton or any player as a starter right now but he made his desire clear: He wants Newton on the team in 2020. 

Rhule’s words of affirmation Tuesday morning were the strongest statements we’ve received from the organization about the Panthers’ commitment to Cam Newton since 2020 began.

But will Cam Newton really be back?

Still, color me skeptical. Let me be clear, from early October all the way through January I have strongly believed that Newton would reprise his role as the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. I went on record midseason saying there was not a scenario that existed where a healthy Cam should be taking snaps anywhere other than Carolina. Creating any other outcome would be downright foolish for the Panthers. That is a stance I still firmly maintain. 

However, the events of early February, Tepper’s wild lack of commitment to Newton following his quarterback’s public show of faith in Miami, finally shook my confidence. And I’m not sure Rhule’s comments to the media in Indianapolis this week are enough for me to blindly walk back to the side of the debate I once stood with. As a Twitter follower reminded me, while the situations are quite different, it was just a year ago that another franchise hit their former starter with the “our guy” label only to take another quarterback No. 1 overall and send that “guy” packing less than three months later. 

There’s a part of me that thinks Tepper is playing some mind games here. Perhaps knowing that his “he’s our guy *if healthy*” comments eliminated any semblance of leverage he’d have in trade talks (translation: if he’s on the block, he’s not healthy — another team should lowball), the owner ordered his anointed head coach to change the narrative.

That’s probably way too conspiratorial but it’s not outrageous and we’ve been lied to by NFL coaches before. 

Also, it’s February. The time for speculation and conspiracies is now. 

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To me, the answer to whether Cam Newton is the Panthers starting quarterback in 2020 must sadly remain “maybe.”

Here’s what I do know with utter confidence: A healthy version of the former league MVP would make the Carolina offense one of the top value units in all of football — both fantasy and reality — next season. Newton is not some has-been, as the last time we saw him healthy he was in the middle of the most efficient passing season of his career, even if folks conveniently leave that out of the narrative. If any piece of that guy remains, he can make this scoring unit wildly interesting. 

The Panthers have one of the best offensive weapons in the league in Christian McCaffrey, who just had one of the best fantasy football seasons of all-time without a great quarterback in tow. Layup receiver D.J. Moore finished top-10 in the NFL in receiving yards in his second season. The talented Curtis Samuel is still fantastic at earning separation despite being utterly derailed by Kyle Allen’s noodle arm in 2019.

Mix all this together with Newton in an uptempo offense with Rhule and Joe Brady at the controls — you’ve got something brewing. 

It’s abundantly clear that we should all be rooting for Cam Newton to return as the Panthers starting quarterback. And yet, I’m still not sure we can write that story in pen. I hope I’m wrong.

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