Scott Fowler

Cam Newton shouldn’t play another game in a Panthers uniform — and that’s hard to say

Goodbyes are never easy.

But for the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton, a breakup is — and should be — coming.

It pains me to say this, because Newton has entertained us all for nine years. But I think we’ve already seen the last two games of Newton’s career with Carolina. They were the first two of this 2019 season, when he was a shadow of himself, playing on a bum foot in two home games that the Panthers lost.

That’s not the right way to go out — not for one of the best players in franchise history — but football is cruel like that sometimes. So is life.

The Panthers placed Newton on injured reserve Tuesday, ending his 2019 season due to a foot injury that had already caused him to miss the team’s last six games and now will assure he misses the next eight, too. He’s still under contract with Carolina for the 2020 season, but that deal can and should be broken.

Newton will play in the NFL once again. He’s only 30, he’s still an elite athlete when healthy and players have come back from Lisfranc foot injuries plenty of times before. Don’t bury Newton yet, because he’s still going to produce some more great NFL highlights. They just won’t be in Charlotte.

The Panthers aren’t commenting about his long-term future because they want him to get his foot back to 100 percent before any long-term decision gets made. They aren’t trying to make a call on their starting quarterback in September 2020 — they are worried about playing at Green Bay on Sunday.

The problem is the money.

If Carolina keeps Newton next season, that will cost them $21.1 million in salary-cap terms in the final year of the quarterback’s contract, according to Spotrac.

If the Panthers release Newton, he costs them only $2 million in “dead cap” money.

As much as the Panthers love Newton — the only Carolina player to ever win the NFL Most Valuable Player award — it’s hard to justify paying more than 10 percent of your total salary cap (it was $188 million for NFL teams this season) to a quarterback who may or may not be ready to play an entire season in 2020. Saving the $19 million and spending it on other needs makes the most sense.

Could the Panthers avoid this financial quagmire for the short term? Yes, but only by offering Newton a contract extension (unless he took a significant pay cut on his own, which seems unlikely).

A new contract for Newton would allow the money to be spread out for several years. But is that the financially responsible thing for the Panthers to do?

Unless a very creative solution is found, it’s not.

‘My own worst enemy’

As durable as Newton has been throughout his career — he missed only five games in his first eight seasons with Carolina — he’s been injury-plagued recently. He has had two throwing shoulder surgeries in the past three years. And now he has this nagging foot injury — sustained in an exhibition game in August that he never should have been playing in and then aggravated when he played on it during the first two weeks of the regular season.

Newton would later say in a video he posted that he hid the injury’s severity, proclaiming himself “my own worst enemy.”

And that may be true. Due to this sudden onset of injuries to a running quarterback who has been hit so many hundreds of times, Newton’s value has taken a significant dip. Somebody will give him a new deal, because NFL teams are desperate for proven quarterbacks, but it’s not going to be as massive as it once would have been.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are paying 23-year-old quarterback Kyle Allen peanuts (in NFL terms) to play this season. They still hold “exclusive rights” to Allen in 2020, which means Allen can’t go anywhere else, and rookie quarterback Will Grier is early into his first contract, too.

There’s a lot of money floating around if the Panthers don’t re-sign Newton. They have enough money to bring in a healthy veteran backup quarterback if they want to — they could do that tomorrow — as a third QB option. And they have to sock some money away for the inevitable Christian McCaffrey extension.

If the Panthers do cut the cord with Newton, that would likely happen in late February or early March, just before the start of the new NFL fiscal year. Newton would then become an unrestricted free agent.

Hurney, Rivera and Cam

Here’s another factor at play. Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, now on his second go-around with the team, has said that one of his mistakes in his first term was his undying loyalty to very good Panther players who were starting to age out of their prime.

Hurney was prone to giving lucrative contract extensions to players no one else was about to pay that much money to. This put the Panthers into a salary-cap tailspin and helped get Hurney fired (he was later rehired after Dave Gettleman came and went).

With the Panthers now 5-3 and playing well, Hurney and coach Ron Rivera both look pretty likely to still be making the big decisions in 2020 (although that’s not a sure thing, either).

Those two drafted Newton. They nurtured him. They got to a Super Bowl with him. They saw him become great. They love him.

But they also know how iffy injuries can be, and how the NFL works.

There will be tears shed, for sure. But I think the decision on Cam Newton will finally come down in a few months. There will be some handshakes, a lot of hugs and a sorrowful but necessary parting of the ways. That’s my prediction, anyway, and Lord knows I’ve been wrong before.

But much like this “injured reserve” decision that I advocated a couple of days ago, this release would work for everybody.

Newton can start over elsewhere, with a new long-term deal. The Panthers won’t have to risk $21 million on a guy who missed 14 of 16 games in 2019 and was playing hurt for the other two.

Appreciating Cam Newton

If this is truly the end of the Cam Newton Era, let me say this.

When he was at his best, Cam Newton was unbelievable. Soaring somersaults into the end zone, 35-yard darts to open receivers, a charismatic personality the likes of which the Panthers had never seen before — it was an awesome show. In some ways, the NFL had never seen anything like it.

Yes, Newton was 0-8 over his final eight starts. But he was a compromised player by then, trying to get by on guile and not much else.

Stand back for a second and take the long view.

cam-kids
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (center) did a Superman pose for The Charlotte Observer in 2013 along with some of the kids that he had given a “touchdown ball” to during his career. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Panthers were so, so lucky to have drafted Newton and to have employed him for the past nine years. He was the best rookie in the NFL in 2011. He was the best player in the NFL in 2015. You know what quarterback Lamar Jackson is doing now in Baltimore? Newton did all of that, but better.

The kids who got all those touchdown balls in the stands were lucky to have met him. We were all lucky to have watched him.

Newton was the best quarterback the Panthers have ever had, and it’s not close. He commanded the national stage like no other player Carolina has ever had. He was a showman and a showstopper.

Yet every performance must end. Newton deserves a standing ovation for what he did with the Panthers.

But in a few months, the curtain is going to drop.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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