Carolina Panthers

What do the futures of Ron Rivera and Cam Newton look like with the Carolina Panthers?

Oh, the takes. So, so many takes.

The Carolina Panthers placed franchise quarterback Cam Newton on injured reserve Tuesday, effectively ending his season. Newton has missed the last six games with a nagging Lisfranc injury in his left foot, and this move will allow him the proper time to heal without any pressure to return prematurely this season.

But it also opened up a wormhole of other questions about Newton — specifically whether he’ll be back with the Panthers next season.

There’s still a long time for Newton and the team to work through their options, so any bold claims you see this winter about “what is definitely going to happen” are in fact just a load of malarkey. That said, we can definitely break down what some of those options are, which is where this week’s mailbag begins:

Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep Newton at $21 million next season rather than compete with the 6-7 teams projected to draft higher than the Panthers?

Let’s dive right into this.

Newton is under contract through next season, and he’s slated to count for about $21 million against Carolina’s 2020 salary cap. For reference, that’s 14th in the NFL among quarterbacks, per Over the Cap, behind players like Joe Flacco and Alex Smith.

But the next thing to know about Newton’s contract is that if Carolina were to cut or trade him this offseason, it would save about $19 million and only incur $2 million in dead-cap space. That money could — in theory — be redistributed to new contracts for young foundational players such as cornerback James Bradberry, linebacker Shaq Thompson and running back Christian McCaffrey.

Of course, if Carolina opts not to keep Newton, it would also have a pressing issue at quarterback. Second-year passer Kyle Allen has impressed at times this season, but it’s hard to say definitely that either he or rookie Will Grier is the future for Carolina. And again, Newton’s salary certainly isn’t as overwhelming as other recent quarterback contracts; $21 million for a starting-caliber NFL quarterback is a relative bargain in today’s NFL.

What this question is getting at is the fact that, by nature of its 5-3 record to this point in the season, the Panthers have likely already played themselves out of a premier draft pick. Even if the team lost its remaining eight games, a 5-11 record might be too “good” to be picking in the Top 10. In that case, Carolina likely wouldn’t have its pick of the quarterback prospects in next year’s draft.

It’s subjective to say which option makes more sense. But the way this season has already gone, it appears that if the Panthers do choose to move on from Newton, their replacement at quarterback will have to come from somewhere other than the top of the NFL Draft.

How likely is it that the era of Newton to Greg Olsen passes is over?

Again, this is a question of speculation. But we can lay out the facts of what we do know:

Olsen, 34, is the oldest player on the Panthers’ roster. He’s also only under contract for another season, so his timeline matches up with Newton’s. And after back-to-back seasons with severe foot injuries, he’s managed to stay healthy so far in 2019.

But of course there’s a caveat here, too. Olsen was a strong contender for the open Monday Night Football broadcasting job this offseason, and he’s a natural analyst whenever he eventually decides to hang things up. Of course, given his production this year — he’s ninth among tight ends in receiving yards (331) and tenth in receptions (27) — that may be further away than anticipated.

Also, these are decisions that will be made independently of one another. Nobody around the organization is talking about Olsen’s imminent departure like those in the media are talking about Newton’s. And for what it’s worth, I think whatever the organization decides with Newton with also hinge on what it does with coach Ron Rivera. Speaking of...

The thought is Ron Rivera would probably be fired if the team doesn’t make the playoffs this year, but it’s a possibility a 10-win team could miss the playoffs. In that scenario, do you see him still being fired?

There’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s important we do so.

After last season’s seven-game losing streak, there were real questions about Rivera’s job security. But owner David Tepper, who was in his first year with the team, exercised patience in keeping together a coaching staff that is well-respected by its players.

It’s impossible to say how Tepper would handle this hypothetical situation, but considering all the ways the billionaire has made his mark off the football field, it’s not illogical that he’d want to do the same with the actual team. Tepper is well-connected around the league from his time in Pittsburgh, and given the talent on the roster, he wouldn’t have any trouble finding candidates interested in coaching this team.

Tepper values winning above everything else. How he’d value a 10-win team that misses the playoffs, albeit without its starting quarterback? If I had to guess — and it would be that exactly, a guess — I’d think he makes a clean break and installs his own people. That may not be fair to Rivera, but when you own the team, you get to make your own decisions.

One last point here: If Rivera does stick around — I think he should in this hypothetical scenario — then that also makes it more likely Newton is back. Newton and Rivera are tied at the hip by nature of their joint arrival in Charlotte, and Rivera knows what a full-strength Newton is capable of; he’d be more inclined to run Newton back for one last go-around than a new coach without that prior experience.

Why is this Greg Little concussion protocol lasting so long?

I don’t know that I would characterize it as “so long,” especially with how tricky concussions can be.

Little entered the concussion protocol the same game that Newton first injured his foot, against the New England Patriots in the third week of the preseason. As a result, he missed the team’s first two regular-season games. Then he returned and played in Weeks 3 and 4 before re-entering the protocol after concussion-like symptoms resurfaced.

Since then, Little has been slowly finding his way back. He began working on the sideline during practice in recent weeks, and actually participated in team drills on Friday. Rivera said that’s another encouraging step, even though Little has already been ruled out for Sunday’s matchup in Green Bay.

Little would still need to be cleared by an independent neurologist before he could return to game action, but that certainly seems to be his trajectory, now that he’s returned to practicing with the team.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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