The Carolina Panthers have not been shy about calling Cam Newton their franchise quarterback.
But as new, long-term deals have popped up around the league between teams and their franchise quarterbacks, some of them members of Newton’s 2011 draft class, Newton’s contract talks with the Panthers have stagnated since the summer.
Still, five people interviewed – who did not want to be named for this article – close to Newton and/or within the Panthers believe the message is clear: Newton wants to lead a winner in Charlotte, and the team wants to keep him. And this season provides perhaps the best evidence.
Behind an offensive line lacking in talent and hampered by injuries, with a receiving corps that has struggled to get open, on a team that is 3-7-1, Newton has remained positive.
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“The goal is for Cam to win in Charlotte,” one person close to Newton said. “If it was only about money and stats, he’d be more critical and animated about what’s happening. Everyone sees what’s on the field. He’s talking about how he has to be better.”
Whether Newton will be in Charlotte beyond 2015 is unknown.
In the final year of a four-year rookie deal worth $22 million, Newton is earning $7 million this season, which makes him the 17th-highest paid quarterback in the league.
Carolina picked up his fifth-year option this spring, which will pay him $14.66 million in 2015, making him the league’s 14th-highest paid quarterback.
During the summer, six-year deals with San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, potentially worth $100 million each over their lifetimes, were finalized. The Panthers and Newton’s camp talked about a long-term contract, too.
But talks between Newton and the Panthers stalled around the start of training camp. A Panthers source said talks haven’t picked up again because the team wants Newton focused on the season.
It has been a season in which the Panthers have struggled, and Newton, a two-time Pro Bowler, hasn’t been great either. He has thrown 10 interceptions to nine touchdown passes in the past seven games – one win, one tie and five losses. This season he has completed 58.6 percent of his passes, thrown for 2,392 yards, 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Injuries have played a role. Newton is recovering from offseason ankle surgery and has battled through cracked ribs. In a Monday night game at Philadelphia on Nov. 10, Newton looked injured on the field, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera kept him in.
“I trust him with a lot of things because he’s earning it,” Rivera said two weeks ago.
“He’s our franchise quarterback; he’s a guy we believe in, and I’m going to stick with him.”
Carolina’s offensive problems are deeper than Newton, to be sure.
The Panthers, who have a bye this week, will trot out their seventh different offensive line in as many games on Nov. 30 against Minnesota.
The trouble was evident in the offseason, when veterans Jordan Gross, Geoff Hangartner, Travelle Wharton and Jeff Byers all retired, sending the Panthers scrambling for line help.
General manager Dave Gettleman drafted offensive guard Trai Turner in the third round, then grabbed undrafted rookie Andrew Norwell after the draft ended but did not address the offensive tackle position in the draft or free agency.
That sent the Panthers into the season with Byron Bell and Nate Chandler, one of the worst-rated tackle pairings in the NFL, according to the football analytics site Pro Football Focus. Chandler will miss the rest of the season after being placed on injured reserve on Monday.
And Newton is on pace to be sacked a career-high 48 times.
“He’s been hit more than any other quarterback, and there are no complaints,” one source close to Newton said. “People are going to look for the negative, but he hasn’t said one negative thing.”
There have been questions inside and outside the organization about Gettleman’s offseason handling of the offensive line and whether Newton has enough in front of him to be successful.
Newton’s situation is similar in some respects to what defensive end Julius Peppers faced after the 2009 season. The Panthers were ready to make Peppers one of the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL, but Peppers resisted a long-term deal and the franchise tag in large part because he felt the team wasn’t built for success.
In 2010, the Panthers went 2-14 with Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. In 2011, they drafted Newton.
But the Panthers source bristled at the notion that the team isn’t surrounding Newton with enough weapons. The team released No. 1 receiver Steve Smith, but that was in an effort to clear the way for Newton to lead.
The Panthers drafted receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of May’s draft and added a pass-catching tight end in Ed Dickson. But the team has battled salary cap woes since Gettleman took over as general manager before the 2013 season and hasn’t been able to plug all its holes.
Several experts, including CBSSports.com’s Joel Corry, have put Newton’s future earnings potential in the same tier as Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. Both have signed deals worth more than $100 million, with more than $50 million guaranteed.
Newton also has the assurances from his corporate sponsors – Under Armour, Gatorade and Beats by Dre – that they’ll remain with him wherever he plays, according to sources. Newton is expected to re-up with Under Armour before his contract with the apparel giant expires in the spring.
By all indications, Newton would like to stay in Charlotte. He calls the city his second home after Atlanta, where he grew up.
In his three-plus seasons with the Panthers, he has grown roots in Charlotte. His clothing line, MADE, is with the Charlotte-based department store Belk. Through his foundation, he works closely with Carolinas Healthcare System and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
With the Panthers at 3-7-1 but still in contention for the playoffs in the NFC South, the NFL’s worst division, the hope around Newton is that the Panthers win, allowing his long-term future in Charlotte to take care of itself.
“It’s a chance for him to establish himself as a leader,” a person close to Newton said. “If you can win on this team, under these circumstances, it’ll make him better.
“If they win, all of this is for naught. Just win games.”