Untested Kyle Allen is the backup plan.
If Cam Newton is sidelined beginning this weekend against Arizona, there’s no veteran passer on his way to Charlotte to try and salvage this season; coach Ron Rivera said as much Tuesday. The NFC South is as open as it has been in years — it’s the only NFC division without a 2-0 team, not to mention Saints quarterback Drew Brees will miss time nursing an injured thumb — yet, Carolina’s best bet for making it back to the playoffs after a two-year absence may be an undrafted second-year QB.
“I think the guys that we have here, we brought them here for a specific purpose, and that’s to develop them, train them, have them ready to go for a situation like this,” Rivera said. “That’s why they’re here.”
There is no guarantee that Newton will miss time for the Panthers, but after re-aggravating a left foot sprain from three weeks ago, it seems apparent that this is where Carolina is heading.
Newton was absent from practice Tuesday, and coach Ron Rivera said later he had “no idea” when Newton might return to action. General manager Marty Hurney, who first confirmed that Newton had re-injured his foot, called the situation “day-by-day.”
Newton told the Panthers after Thursday night’s loss to Tampa Bay, which dropped the team to 0-2, that his foot was sore. Rivera said he spoke to Newton in-depth Friday and then again Tuesday morning, when he learned “all the information” about his franchise quarterback. In the meanwhile, Rivera said it was his understanding that Newton was doing physical therapy in hopes of returning to the field as quickly as possible.
But will he return?
As the Panthers prepare to travel to Arizona this weekend to face the winless Cardinals (0-1-1), they can’t sit around and hope Newton’s foot magically heals. If Newton is out Sunday — or for the foreseeable future — then the Panthers are fully prepared to roll with Allen as their starting quarterback.
“I think Kyle’s more than ready,” Rivera said. “Kyle did some really good things last year, showed us what he’s capable of. He had a good preseason. Had a whole bunch of ups, had a few downs ... He knows the offense. He knows it very well, so we feel confident about him.
“... I just think at times as you watch him, he needs to speed himself up a little bit. Because one thing he will have to get used to obviously is the speed of the game. I mean, he’s only played in limited situations, so things are a lot faster. I think he’s got the ability, so it’ll be fun to watch him.”
Allen, who Carolina signed as a rookie free agent after the 2018 draft, won the No. 2 job behind Newton throughout training camp and the preseason. The Panthers drafted Charlotte native Will Grier in the third round of April’s NFL Draft, but Allen’s experience in the offense made him the clear choice to backup Newton.
It helped that in limited action as a rookie, Allen excelled.
“Again, we do go back to what he did briefly in the Atlanta game and then what he did in the New Orleans game,” Rivera said. “We feel very comfortable.”
After the team opted to shut Newton down for the final two games of 2018 due to lingering shoulder soreness and tightness, then-backup Taylor Heinicke was named the team’s starter for Week 16 against the Atlanta Falcons. But Heinicke was injured mid-game, and Allen briefly supplanted him. He completed all four of his attempts against Atlanta for 38 yards.
Allen then started Week 17 against a New Orleans team that had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Even though the Saints only played a handful of starters having already locked up playoff seeding, Allen’s success caught his coaches’ attention. He finished that game 16-for-27 with 228 yards passing and two touchdowns, plus five carries for 19 yards and another score.
“He balled. There’s no other way to say it,” receiver Jarius Wright said of Allen’s Week 17 showing. “He had an opportunity. He was ready. He came in fully committed to being the starting quarterback, and he did his job. He also gave us a chance to do our jobs.
“Anytime that happens, you can live with that.”
Allen was not available to reporters Tuesday.
The Panthers won’t publish an injury report until Wednesday, which will shed more light on Newton’s status. If he sits, it would follow a trend that has thrust many backups into the spotlight after only two weeks. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury, and the Saints’ Brees is expected to miss six weeks with a thumb injury. Longtime Giants starter Eli Manning was benched Tuesday in favor of rookie, and Charlotte native, Daniel Jones, and Jaguars starter Nick Foles already missed Week 2 with a broken collarbone. Jets QB Sam Darnold is out indefinitely with a case of mono.
But Newton’s situation is different from the others. His inability to stay healthy has eroded his effectiveness as a starter. In addition to the foot sprain suffered against the Patriots in the third week of the preseason, Newton is still working out the kinks after arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January. Through two games, Newton has thrown the highest percentage of uncatchable balls (34.2 percent) of any eligible passer in the NFL, and he is yet to account for a rushing or passing touchdown this season.
Allen would take over a team on the brink, although one with fortuitous circumstances around the division. A loss this week, and the Panthers would drop to 0-3, seemingly destroying their odds of making the playoffs. Since 1980, 176 teams have started with three straight losses.
Six made the postseason.
Which means this team needs to figure out what it looks like with Allen at the helm, and fast.
“That’s part of why you go to training camp, to find out what kind of team you are and where you’re headed. Does it change things? Yes, this changes things dramatically,” Rivera said. “If we’re going to end up going with Kyle for a while, yes. I mean, we have to find out who we are with him as the quarterback. And going on the road, it’s going to be a little bit of a challenge.
“It’s an opportunity. It’s a challenge. We’ll see how we handle that challenge, but I feel good about us.”