The Carolina Panthers find themselves at a crossroads Sunday, playing a game they really need to win with a quarterback they fired twice, and for a coach who is trying to hang onto his job.
The quarterback is Kyle Allen, who was cut from both the Panthers’ regular roster and then their practice squad in 2018, before returning in late October and making a fairly meteoric rise. The coach is Ron Rivera, who is in his ninth season (exactly how long John Fox lasted). And the quarterback whose latest injury has allowed Allen’s temporary ascension, of course, is Cam Newton.
Although it certainly feels to everyone like Newton has been hurt a lot lately — including to Newton himself — his durability has actually been remarkable.
When Newton sits out Sunday’s 4:05 p.m. game at Arizona with a foot injury, it will be only the sixth game in nine seasons that he has missed. One of those was the season finale in 2018, when Allen got his only other NFL start and accounted for three touchdowns in an upset win over New Orleans.
As I’ve written, in the short term I think flipping the switch on quarterbacks right now may be a blessing in disguise for everyone involved. Newton obviously needs some time to recover, because he has looked like a shadow of himself during Carolina’s 0-2 start. Allen gives the Panthers a better chance to win Sunday than the obviously compromised Newton, whose running game has evaporated (he has negative-2 rushing yards on the season) and who missed countless open receivers despite throwing for 333 yards in Carolina’s 20-14 loss to Tampa Bay.
Allen gets his chance on a team that must take a chance, because the status quo isn’t working. Allen actually has a big personality, but it hasn’t had much of a chance to come to the fore in Carolina’s locker room because of Newton’s even bigger personality and long reign as the team’s alpha male.
Now Allen gets a chance to show his arm strength, to get the ball out quicker than he did in the preseason (he sometimes doesn’t play fast enough, Rivera says) and to prove he can stay healthy himself. That last item is no easy task behind a Panthers’ offensive line that has been suspect — and, at times, downright bad.
If Allen gets hurt Sunday, Carolina will turn to Will Grier, the rookie and former Davidson Day star. There’s no chance Newton could play at the last minute, as Rivera said Friday the quarterback would be left at home to continue to rehab his foot.
The Cardinals went a league-worst 3-13 last season and have started this year 0-1-1. It’s a very winnable game for Carolina, but we’ve all said that before for a team that has gone 1-9 over its last 10. Rivera, who is about as genial a head coach as you’ll ever find in the NFL, uncharacteristically walked out of a press conference Thursday when he got upset after being asked a flurry of questions about Newton’s injury in a row.
In other words, things are pretty tense over at Bank of America Stadium.
Lose this one and the season falls even further into disarray. Win it, with Allen — in his duel vs. former Texas A&M teammate Kyler Murray — and things look a bit better.
▪ Former Panther and South Carolina Gamecock wide receiver Damiere Byrd has found a home in Arizona. Byrd had only 12 catches in three years with the Panthers, in part because the speedy wideout struggled to stay on the field due to injury. He actually broke the same arm in 2017 and 2018. But with the Cardinals, Byrd already has 10 catches for 87 yards through two games.
▪ It’s hard to overstate how great a career Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has had. He’s had 13 catches in the Cardinals first two games — at age 36! — and now needs 10 more to pass Tony Gonzalez for second place on the NFL’s all-time reception list. Only Jerry Rice has more. The Cardinals like to throw a short pass to Fitzgerald early, especially in home games, to get their crowd fired up.
▪ Prediction time. Between them, Carolina and Arizona don’t have a single win. I think Allen will play just well enough behind an opportunistic Panthers defense to squeak this one out. I’m figuring the Panthers defense to make at least one important interception on Murray. But a warning: Last week I also picked Carolina to beat Tampa Bay and that didn’t work out, dropping my record to 1-1 on the season.
My pick: Carolina 20, Arizona 17.