After 96 days of waiting, Cam Newton and the Panthers can finally move on — for now

After 96 days of waiting, Cam Newton and the Panthers can finally move on — for now
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) walks off the field following the Panthers 20-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) (Source: Mike McCarn)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - Cam Newton’s first game against the Panthers was always going to draw attention.

That’s what happens after nine years with an organization. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the 2015 league MVP and the holder of countless franchise records. The fact that his signing with the Patriots was announced on a Sunday night in late June, the dead of the NFL calendar, put even more spotlight on every aspect of Newton signing with a new team.

As soon as his one-year deal with the Patriots became official Sunday, a certain potential full-circle moment emerged.

Among the games on the Panthers’ preseason schedule is a Week 2 trip to New England on Aug. 20. On Aug. 22, 2019, Newton left a Week 3 preseason game in Foxborough, Mass., early with a left-foot injury. That event eventually led to him sitting out all but the first two games of the 2019 season in order to work toward returning to full health.

What would have been a harmless preseason game has now turned into a must-see event.

Bill Belichick has a history of playing starters in the preseason, including Tom Brady playing in a limited capacity in 15 of 19 Week 2 preseason games throughout his career as a starter.

The bigger issue with that game, however, is whether it takes place at all — and there’s a strong possibility it does not. The NFL has already canceled the first preseason game of the year — the Hall of Fame game between the Cowboys and Steelers — the rest of the preseason is expected to be significantly reduced due to the pandemic. If the NFL wants each team to have a home and away preseason game to run through new protocols, Carolina’s game in Baltimore on Aug. 30 is a much shorter trip, if that even takes place.

Newton will always be tied to the Panthers, and he should be. But with the quarterback signing a one-year deal worth up to $7.5 million in incentives, an offseason of change finally feels complete. Ron Rivera is gone, Matt Rhule is in charge. The Jerry Richardson statue outside Bank of America Stadium has been removed. Newton is with the Patriots and it’s Teddy Bridgewater starting in Carolina.

96 DAYS OF WAITING

Newton, along with a list of other significant free agents who remain unsigned, sat unemployed for months in part because of the restrictions in place due to COVID-19. He is now a 31-year old quarterback with an injury history, including two surgeries on his throwing shoulder, and teams not being able to have players at facilities or be looked at by team doctors.

The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the NFL offseason in a variety of areas, including free agency. Would Newton have been in the same position, signing a one-year, minimum contract in late June if not for the virus? Maybe, but it would have been a lot less likely. Free agency came to a halt following his release. Most teams aren’t even signing their draft picks right now due to future uncertainties, let alone expressing significant interest in veteran quarterbacks with an injury history.

In the end, however, it worked out for Newton the best way it could have after it became clear his interest in remaining in Carolina wasn’t mutual. He has an opportunity to start and be coached by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, who have a history of adapting to players’ strengths and working with big personalities (see Randy Moss).

WHAT’S NEXT?

How much of an impact he’ll make in 2020 is still unknown, like so much of the sports world right now. But the movement from Carolina to New England has resulted in the creation of two very different quarterback rooms from a season ago.

Teddy Bridgewater will be starting for the Panthers after signing a three-year deal and 2019 third-round pick Will Grier and XFL star P.J. Walker will back him up in an entirely new offense under coordinator Joe Brady.

But to keep the change in Carolina relative, New England has been tasked with their first new starting quarterback since Brady took over in 2001. Newton joins fellow former Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer, Brian Lewerke and J’Mar Smith on the Patriots’ quarterback depth chart. If healthy, the job appears to be Newton’s to lose. There have been plenty of reports surrounding Stidham as the future, but Newton certainly has experience on his side for this season.

If he is just a one-year rental, at some point he will get the opportunity to show what he can do after months of developing a chip on his shoulder, in hopes of landing a future more lucrative deal somewhere.

One big question surrounding Newton has been answered and moving on can now truly begin. But there’s still so many other unknowns to be discovered.