As summer changed to fall, and now fall to winter, one murky question has lingered over Bank of America Stadium:
What do the Carolina Panthers do with Cam Newton, their franchise quarterback?
Newton has missed the past six games with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot, and after visiting with renowned foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson on Friday, he’s expected to miss several more. The team still hasn’t even offered a timetable for Newton’s return. In the meantime, second-year backup Kyle Allen has led the team from the brink of collapse back to a 5-3 overall record heading into this week’s game against the Green Bay Packers.
So, what to do with Newton?
As the Panthers and coach Ron Rivera made abundantly clear Monday: Absolutely nothing.
“What we’re going to do is, Kyle Allen will start this week. Cam will continue his rehab program,” Rivera said. “I’ve got nothing further to add, guys. I can’t tell you anything other than what I’ve already told you.”
Rivera was asked after Carolina’s 30-20 win over Tennessee on Sunday if the team would consider putting Newton on injured reserve (IR), effectively ending his season. He was also asked if Newton’s meeting with Anderson had taken foot surgery — something both Rivera and Newton expressed they hope to avoid — off the table.
Rivera declined to offer any clarity to either.
That haze of Newton questions swirled back up on Monday, where local fans and national analysts alike were wondering what news the Panthers would announce.
Only no news came.
“I don’t know who’s talking, but we’re not talking. I know that much,” Rivera said. “I can’t answer anything (else about Newton). I can’t add anything else to anything.”
By not electing to place Newton on IR, it says a couple of things about his status and the state of this Panthers team.
The benefits to putting Newton on IR are clear. For starters, the team would have an extra roster spot to use on a player who can actually help them win this season. Carolina has had an open roster spot for about two weeks, and filled it Monday afternoon by claiming former Steelers receiver Donte Moncrief. Additionally, making that move with Newton would stop the constant barrage of inquiries.
But perhaps most notably, placing Newton on IR would begin setting in motion more serious decisions the Panthers will make over the next year.
Inherently, if Newton goes on IR, it effectively ends his season. The quarterback wouldn’t be eligible to return for another eight games, nor could he begin practicing for six weeks, putting his potential return — had the team placed him on IR today — in the playoffs. At that point, Allen would have started 14 games and led the Panthers to the playoffs; making the switch back to Newton would be a difficult locker room-sell. Also, that assumes Newton would even be able to practice in six weeks time, something that isn’t a given with his dubious return timeline.
Additionally, landing Newton on IR would then carry longer-term ramifications. He only has one more year remaining on his contract, and he’s slated to count for about $21 million against the 2020 salary cap. But if the team were to cut him, they would save $19 million and incur just a $2 million dead cap hit. Putting him on IR sets a precarious precedent about the future of the franchise’s all-time leading passer in Charlotte.
By not placing their franchise quarterback on injured reserve, the Panthers keep the door open for a potential return — and they also give themselves more time to figure out just how far away he is in his rehab.
Here’s where it gets more complicated.
If the team believes Newton could return at any point this regular season, it makes sense not to place him on IR. With eight games left to play, Newton could conceivably miss another four games and still have four to come back for. Placing him on IR eliminates that possibility and cements Allen as the team’s starter for the rest of 2019.
But more importantly, consider this: What if the Panthers still don’t know exactly how bad Newton’s foot is, or when it might be 100 percent healthy (which is the barometer they’ve set for his return)?
In that situation, it absolutely doesn’t make sense to place Newton on IR. Newton has now consulted with the Panthers’ team doctors, Anderson and a third set of doctors in his hometown of Atlanta — that has all been in search of a better answer, which is what general manager Marty Hurney said in a statement released Friday.
“I spent a long time speaking with Cam this week and he’s done everything he possibly can in his rehab process to get his foot to 100 percent,” Hurney said in that release. “Unfortunately, we haven’t reached that point. The next step is for him to go see Dr. Anderson and gather more information.”
There’s also always the potential of putting him on IR down the road.
The one thing Rivera did say Monday was that the constant questioning about his quarterback situation isn’t a distraction in the locker room, even if it does become bothersome.
“The truth of the matter is, if you didn’t ask it, it wouldn’t be a bother. And I mean that. I give you an answer and tell you what it is; as far as I’m concerned, I’m not sure why it’s continued being brought up,” Rivera said. “Every Monday I’d be happy to answer the opening question, answer the elephant in the room, and then move on.
“For (Allen), he goes about it because it’s asked. And that’s the truth. I know you guys have to do a job and try to get information, but I’m telling you the truth. I’m telling you what I know. I’m not going to get up here and make a story up. I’m going to tell you exactly what I know, and what these guys know is what I tell them. And to me it’s the truth.”
The Panthers have avoided making any sort of long-term quarterback decision to this point, but this week-in, week-out nature of operation can’t continue indefinitely.
But Monday, the Panthers shed the most light on the Newton situation by shining no light at all.