Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton hasn’t proven he’s a $100 million quarterback

Is Cam Newton really worth $100 million?

Do the Carolina Panthers want to stake their future on the hope that the Newton of 2013 returns and banishes the Newton of 2014 forever?

Is the “Cam 2013” version even available anymore, or is it permanently out of stock? Have Newton’s running skills eroded enough because of all those hits that, even at the age of 25, his best years are actually behind him?

These are the biggest questions of Carolina’s upcoming offseason.

I once thought that Newton signing a huge contract extension would be a slam dunk for the Panthers, who would bend over backward to keep him through 2020 or so.

I’m not so sure anymore.

All the rage in 2012, running quarterbacks in the NFL have had all kinds of problems in 2014. Robert Griffin III has been demoted to backup in Washington and is a shell of himself. Colin Kaepernick doesn’t seem nearly as fast or as effective in San Francisco. Russell Wilson, the exception, is still playing well in Seattle. And Newton has clearly regressed, throwing at least one interception in eight straight games while quarterbacking a 3-8-1 team in Carolina.

“I saw an old friend recently who was a defensive coach for Indianapolis,” said Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst who once was the Carolina Panthers’ general manager. “He reminded me of a statement he often made: ‘There are no old running quarterbacks in the NFL.’ Their careers end prematurely. There is no question that the hits take their toll over time.”

This column is mostly about money – in particular, the looming monolith that is Newton’s second contract. Because No. 1 is still such a unique athlete, he will likely get paid a ton of money to play quarterback somewhere. Close to half the teams in the NFL will soon be looking for a new quarterback, after all.

But will it be in Charlotte?

Let’s start with the basics. Unless the Panthers did something really bizarre such as trading Newton – and that wouldn’t be smart because his value is far from its peak right now – he will be their starter in 2015. They have already picked up his fifth-year option off his original four-year rookie contract. That means he will get paid $14.66 million to play for Carolina in 2015 if a new deal with the Panthers doesn’t supersede that.

After that, Carolina could use its franchise tag on Newton – likely at a price of more than $20 million – for a sixth season in 2016. If he still had not signed a new contract at the end of that season, he would become a free agent.

Where did everyone go?

This season, for Newton and the Panthers, has been a bust. But let’s be fair – much of that is not Newton’s fault. He’s not the one who released wide receiver Steve Smith, or told left tackle Jordan Gross to retire, or saw Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. sign elsewhere for more money than the Panthers wanted to pay. He wasn’t the one who decided the Panthers didn’t need to sign a veteran offensive tackle and that they would be fine with Byron Bell and Nate Chandler as the starters at tackle.

A great quarterback can elevate everyone around him – Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have done it for years – but Newton isn’t a great quarterback yet. He needs more help than a Brady or a Manning, and the Panthers have not provided it to him this season. Everything general manager Dave Gettleman touched in his first season turned to gold in 2013, and everything he has touched in 2014 has turned to ... well, this is a family newspaper, so let’s just say it has worked out very poorly.

The Panthers have not won a game in two months.

But it’s not all on Gettleman, either. Newton no longer is the dazzling escape artist he was in his first three seasons, when time and again he made defenders chasing him look silly. Now he often gets caught by the first defensive lineman to collapse part of the pocket. Newton has never been an extremely accurate quarterback, and that has been far more in evidence with his running ability diminished. And he has sometimes looked jittery in the pocket, battle-scarred and ready to get out of there as he plods toward a career low in rushing yards and a career high in sacks.

Quarterbacking guru George Whitfield has worked with many top NFL and college quarterbacks over the years, including with Newton before the 2011 NFL draft. He said to ESPN.com recently of Newton this season: “I’ve told some friends that it almost looks like he’s playing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s been hit so much that even when he does have time to throw, he’s fading away some. He looks off track.”

Polian still lives in the Lake Norman area and has watched Newton closely for his job as ESPN analyst, although he is quick to point out he has nowhere near as much information on the quarterback as those inside the Panthers’ organization do.

Polian said Newton most reminds him of a “single-wing tailback” from the 1940s and said he believed Newton was really more of a running back than a quarterback when he entered the NFL. Polian also believes that Newton only having one year as a major-college quarterback hurt him, noting that Bill Parcells once told him that it’s ideal for a quarterback to have at least 30 starts in college. (Newton had 14 at Auburn).

When I asked Polian if the Panthers should risk a long-term, $100 million deal on Newton, he said, “I don’t have the answer to that.” But he did offer some interesting thoughts on what Newton’s long-term career arc might be.

Morphing into ‘Big Ben’ ideal

“Cam is a special talent,” Polian said. “If you’re the Panthers, you now have to say we’ve got this unique talent – but that talent will tend to erode over time due to injury. That has nothing to do with Cam. Just as a football person you say, hey, there are only so many hits a back can take. That’s just the nature of the sport.”

Continued Polian: “And so he’s got to transition from a guy who has just completely unique skill set to a guy who can still harness that skill set but also be much more of a complete, modern-day quarterback. ... If you’re going to have a long career, you have to gravitate to being a passer first and runner second. Now if you look at Big Ben (Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback), what you hope is that Cam would grow into Big Ben – be a great extender of plays, rather than a running back. That’s what you would hope. Whether he will or not remains to be seen.”

No one knows. That’s the thing.

Remember, Newton is only 25. Maybe an offseason that doesn’t include ankle surgery and does include the Panthers retooling the offense will make all the difference. But the Panthers have placed themselves in salary-cap jail before by giving a quarterback a huge extension right after a season that ended badly (see Delhomme, Jake).

Look, I am always happy to hypothetically spend Jerry Richardson’s money. But ultimately I would not give Newton an extension yet, not after this suffocating season. There are just too many question marks.

I would see how next year plays out first, letting him play 2015 at $14.66  million. If he’s great and Carolina starts winning again – and I still think that is a serious possibility – then either franchise him for 2016 or sign him to a long-term deal.

If he plays badly again, though, then re-evaluate everything with your checkbook still intact.

Maybe this is a one-year blip for Newton, who steadily improved in each of his first three years.

But you just can’t be sure. Not $100 million worth of sure. Not anymore.

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