Cam Newton’s return to the Panthers is a bit like placing a colorful Ninja Turtles Band-Aid over a gaping wound. It’s fun to look at. Fun to talk about. But it doesn’t address the depth of the situation it was employed to fix.
There is little doubt Newton can get up to speed quickly. The former MVP was a quick study in New England, learning a complex Josh McDaniels–led system following a truncated, virtual offseason in which he had about half the amount of time as his peers to prepare for the 2020 season. Newton finished that year with three game-winning drives, one of his better seasons in terms of net yards per attempt and 12 rushing touchdowns. Had Mac Jones not befuddlingly slipped to the Patriots in the 2021 draft, it was obvious that Bill Belichick was adjusting his free-agency priorities toward Newton’s skill set as a passer.
All that said, do we believe that Newton is enough to keep the Panthers, now losers of five of their last six games, alive in one of the most talent-rich NFC pools in recent memory? Could Carolina feasibly crack the top two in their own division, never mind fend off the Falcons, Vikings, Bears, Seahawks or 49ers for an unenviable seventh playoff spot?
Of course Carolina should try, which is why the move was met with the appropriate fanfare. Credit to the organization for not viewing its 3–0 start, which featured wins over the Jets and Texans, as an aberration. The Panthers went after Stephon Gilmore. They traded for CJ Henderson. Now, they’ve supplanted an injured—but also noticeably regressing—Sam Darnold with Newton in the hopes of making a run at the last spot in the conference. Plenty of other teams would have packed it in by now, realizing that the pragmatic view would be to softly tank the season in hopes of a better lottery pick in next year’s NFL draft.
The problem is that Newton’s signing almost makes the big issues—the ones that will haunt them after this short-term experiment is over—seem bigger. The Panthers let Teddy Bridgewater go to bring in Darnold and pick up his fifth-year option. The same thing that happened to Darnold in New York happened in Carolina: As opponents picked up on his preferences and quirks, the Panthers’ offense seemed to condense and Darnold’s passer rating began to plummet. In terms of his composite expected points added per play and completion percentage over expectation score, he is outplaying only the woefully underschemed Trevor Lawrence and the injured Zach Wilson on the season.
Carolina eschewed a deep quarterback draft class, seemingly preferring to keep one toe in the Deshaun Watson water until the optics got so troubling that it publicly scattered a few days before the trade deadline. It was reportedly interested in the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes, unaware that the marriage certificate between the potential MVP candidate and Sean McVay seemed to be signed weeks earlier. Now the Panthers are left to fend for themselves in a 2022 draft class that feels underwhelming at best, and a veteran QB carousel that will, at best, make them the kind of minor players who will try and fork over handfuls of cash for Kirk Cousins (Aaron Rodgers, my guess, is already somewhat spoken for, Russell Wilson is going to spark the bidding war of the century if he is jarred loose, and would you really want to enter into the Watson sweepstakes again?).
Two years into Matt Rhule’s long-term sustainable build, the Panthers have had some moments. Perhaps a reunion between Newton and Christian McCaffrey creates enough issues for opposing linebackers and safeties that they can whittle their way back into contention. But the questions we have about Carolina now are largely the same ones we had when the franchise cut ties with Newton a few years ago. What is the long-term plan? What will their surprising but somewhat fading defense look like after games against the Cardinals, two games against the Buccaneers and matchups against the Bills and Saints? Who are the Carolina Panthers, and what makes us believe that gunning for a No. 7 seed is both attainable and responsible?
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