Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton’s injury may not be serious, but Panthers should consider Kaepernick

Even though Panthers general manager Marty Hurney now says he is “cautiously optimistic” Cam Newton will play in Week 1 of the regular season, the fact that the quarterback got hurt in his first quarter of live action in eight months is a major concern for Carolina.

Because even if this left mid-foot sprain doesn’t cost Newton the opener, you have to wonder what will happen to the team when he gets hurt again.

The Panthers aren’t prepared for life without Newton, who sustained the foot injury on the 11th play of his preseason Thursday night against New England. Newton left Gillette Stadium in a walking boot, but Hurney expressed optimism in an interview Friday that Newton would play against the Los Angeles Rams Sept. 8th in Charlotte.

“We’re going to have to see how it comes along,” Hurney said, “but I’m cautiously optimistic he will be OK for that first game.” He added that the Panthers weren’t going to rush Newton’s return to practice and that for the next few days, at least, the quarterback will likely be rehabbing his foot while the backups run most of the offensive drills.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton grimaces as he gingerly walks off the field after being sacked for the second time by New England. It was Newton’s first live action in eight months. He left the game after the play due to a left foot injury. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

They certainly need the practice. Backup quarterbacks Kyle Allen, Will Grier and Taylor Heinicke haven’t looked ready to shoulder the load of an NFL starting quarterback. Too many mistakes. Too few points.

That’s why I believe the team must think seriously about signing another quarterback if Newton’s next injury is significant in any way -- or if this one turns out to be more serious than what was thought. And I agree with Panthers safety Eric Reid on this: If Newton is going to miss much time at all in 2019, either for this injury or for the next one, it’s time for the Panthers to strongly consider signing Colin Kaepernick.

By all indications, that’s not in the Panthers’ plans under any scenario. They seem committed to trying to keep Allen and Grier in the pipeline as potential quarterbacks of the future. Kaepernick doesn’t seem to be on their radar at all.

I think he should be. Not that they should sign him right now, because Newton’s initial diagnosis doesn’t sound serious enough to warrant that sort of upsetting of the apple cart. But I also think it is wrong to dismiss Kaepernick as a viable option if Newton gets hurt again.

Reid wasn’t even aware after the game that Newton had injured his foot. And he was careful to say in the locker room that he was advocating Kaepernick’s signing only if the Panthers’ franchise quarterback wasn’t able to return right away.

Reid then said: “Colin could help every locker room. Obviously, I hope that Cam’s injury is minor. If it is more significant and will require him being out for a longer period of time, then definitely Colin should come here and help us. ... We’ll see what happens. We won’t put the cart before the horse. But again, Colin could come into any NFL locker room right now and help that team.”

Kaepernick was once one of the NFL’s stars, but he hasn’t played in the league since 2016. Reid and some others believe the NFL has blackballed Kaepernick since the quarterback started publicly campaigning for social justice and racial equity and, most controversially, kneeling during the national anthem (which Reid still does before every game).

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In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, left and safety Eric Reid (now with the Panthers) kneeled together during the playing of the national anthem in Charlotte before a game with Carolina. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

If Kaepernick joined the Panthers, it would be a huge story. The Panthers would add a mobile quarterback who often was compared to Newton in terms of his skill set early in his career.

It’s also true that in Kaepernick’s last season, he went 1-10 as a starting quarterback for a bad San Francisco 49ers team. Kaepernick still works out five times a week, according to Reid. But he’s also a long way removed from the dual-threat quarterback whose 49ers roughed up the Panthers in Charlotte in the 2013 postseason.

Still, the Panthers obviously can’t stand pat if Newton goes down at any point for any length of time.

The team had nine possessions Thursday night in an offensively dismal 10-3 exhibition loss to the Patriots. Eight of those nine Carolina possessions ended in punts. The ninth one would have, too, but for a New England penalty during a punt that sent Carolina’s offense back out onto the field. Carolina only could manage seven first downs and 99 total yards the entire game — the sort of numbers that an overmatched high school team posts. New England had 22 first downs and 316 yards.

Although Allen won his only start last season in Week 17 against New Orleans, he hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in the Panthers’ three preseason games despite starting two of them. Allen said Thursday night he would “be prepared” if he had to start the Sept. 8 regular-season opener vs. the Rams in place of Newton, but his August hasn’t given Panthers fans much confidence about that.

Grier has looked like the rookie he is — he has thrown two passes that resulted in TDs, but one of them was to the other team for a pick-six. Heinicke has looked the best of the three backups in limited work, but the Panthers have phased him out of practices and games to a point where it’s obvious that he’s going to need a big break to make the squad at all. (The Panthers often keep two quarterbacks on the roster but this year are expected to keep three, with Heinicke the odd man out).

Much of the season rides on Newton, as usual. Thursday night was supposed to give us a good look at his arm under duress. Newton threw the ball well in warmups and in his limited work during the game.

But the quarterback got sacked on his fifth play from scrimmage when tight end Chris Manhertz missed a block on a Patriots linebacker, and then he got sacked again on that fateful 11th snap — a third-and-10 play when no one was open. On that play, Newton darted around, avoiding the sack for a few seconds, before going down in a heap of bodies.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton lays on the turf after being sacked New England defensive lineman Adam Butler (70) during the first quarter Thursday night. Newton didn’t return in Carolina’s 10-3 loss and left the stadium in a walking boot. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

He did get up -- this time.

He’s supposed to be OK -- this time.

But next time, if it’s more serious?

Consider Kaepernick. And -- if the price is right and Allen doesn’t improve immediately -- sign him.

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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