Why did the Panthers cut Cam Newton? 3 reasons Carolina's QB move became inevitable
Almost a full decade ago, the Panthers were preparing for what would be an easy decision with the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, a selection Carolina had acquired after finishing 2010 with a 2-14 record. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen, the team's second-round pick in 2010, had thrown 3 touchdowns and 9 interceptions as the starter for most of what was one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
The top pick in 2011 was an obvious choice for general manager Marty Hurney and first-year coach Ron Rivera because Heisman Trophy-winning Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was sitting atop the board and waiting to save the Panthers.
Paired with Rivera, Newton ended up doing just that. Offensive rookie of the year. Three Pro Bowl selections. An All-Pro nod. An NFL MVP award. A Super Bowl appearance. A total of 240 touchdowns. The Panthers' all-time leading passer quickly became the most important player in franchise history given the national relevance he brought to a small-market team that was established just 25 years ago.
Now Newton's Panthers tenure is over after nine years. In that sense, he remains paired with Rivera, who was fired as Carolina's coach in December before taking the same job in Washington.
Managed again by Hurney, who returned to the team after a five-year absence while Dave Gettleman served as GM, the Panthers on Tuesday cut their 30-year-old franchise quarterback. Newton immediately became free to sign with another team as a free agent.
The move might be shocking to those who have not been monitoring recent developments in Carolina, but it had become an inevitability.
Below are the three biggest reasons why.
A new era in Carolina
Rivera and his staff, tight end Greg Olsen, guard Trai Turner, safety Eric Reid and even longtime special teams ace Colin Jones can help explain why the Panthers are letting Newton walk. Under the ownership of David Tepper, who purchased the team in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of former owner and team founder Jerry Richardson, Carolina is experiencing a complete organizational overhaul.
Tepper in January hired Matt Rhule to replace Rivera as Panthers coach, and in doing so, the team owner took a significant leap of faith. Tepper gave Rhule, who had no NFL head-coaching experience, a seven-year contract worth up to $70 million.
Translation: Carolina instantly became Rhule's team. A new coach meant a new vision, which meant a new staff of assistants and, eventually, a new franchise passer.
Rhule hired Phil Snow, his right-hand man through the duo's previous stops at Baylor and Temple, as defensive coordinator. He then hired Joe Brady, a young-but-quickly rising assistant who helped LSU and Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow earn a national championship last season, as offensive coordinator.
Before serving as the Tigers' passing game coordinator in 2019, Brady spent two years with the Saints as an offensive assistant. Hence the familiarity with former New Orleans backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whom the Panthers signed to a three-year contract worth $63 million in free agency last week.
In short, Tepper's Rhule hire led to Brady, and Brady's background/plan for the offense led to the Bridgewater signing. The addition of Bridgewater's contract led to the release of Newton.
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Cam Newton's contract
Newton was entering the final season of the five-year contract extension he signed in the summer of 2015, months before he led the Panthers to Super Bowl 50. In the context of the organizational changes noted above, the spring of 2020 quickly became an ideal time to cut ties.
Newton surely craved an extension — he publicly requested "a little commitment" in a NSFW Instagram video a few weeks ago — and the Panthers were not willing to add years and dollars to the contract of a 30-year-old quarterback whose last two seasons were marred by injuries (more on those later), especially as they transitioned to a new offense.
In releasing Newton, Carolina save $19.1 million in salary cap space while taking on a dead cap charge of just $2 million for 2020. Such savings are ideal for a franchise looking to rebuild its roster, but they became vital when the Panthers signed Bridgewater.
The Bridgewater signing comes with cap number of $14 million for 2020, so with Newton included, the Panthers would have had $35.1 million on the books for a pair of quarterbacks, one of which was not in the plans for the future. Carolina simply could not carry both contracts at the same time.
Because the Panthers had decided they were going to part with Newton, ideally, they would have received some compensation from another team rather than an outright release. That scenario eventually revealed itself to be impossible.
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The Panthers couldn't trade Cam Newton
Carolina failed to find a team willing to trade for Newton for two reasons: the quarterback's health issues that contributed to the Panthers' decision to part with him in the first place, and the surprising lack of a market for a starting quarterback in 2020.
Though the Panthers have (likely strategically) noted Newton will be ready for training camp, if not earlier, the quarterback is still recovering from foot surgery after a Lisfranc injury limited his 2019 season to just two games. According to The Athletic, teams also have expressed concerns about the shoulder injury that impacted Newton's 2018 season and also resulted in surgery.
Trading a player who's technically injured is difficult enough in a typical year. With the coronavirus pandemic forbidding NFL teams to perform physicals on acquired players, 2020 is far from a typical year. Teams can't verify Newton's health status with their own evaluations, though he did pass a physical in Atlanta coordinated by the Panthers and his agency team.
As for the busy quarterback market during NFL free agency, it only compounded issues for the Panthers as they searched for a trade partner.
When we presented the most ideal non-Panthers fits for Newton last month, we included the Titans, Chargers, Buccaneers and Patriots. Then the Titans re-signed Ryan Tannehill to a long-term deal. The Chargers reportedly decided they would not pursue a quarterback in free agency or a trade, sticking with Tyrod Taylor (and likely a high draft pick), instead.
The Buccaneers signed Tom Brady. The Patriots, even after losing Brady, opted against a move as aggressive as trading for Newton.
Even the Redskins, the team Rivera coaches and a sensible landing place for Newton, reportedly has decided to take a wait-and-see approach. Washington has a promising second-year passer in Dwayne Haskins and multiple options with the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft.
Now, in theory, Newton could land with any of those teams as an unrestricted free agent. The Redskins, Patriots and Chargers still could be considered good landing places.
The open market for Newton likely will be just as limited as the trade market was if he wants to land with a new team as its starting quarterback. A good bet, though, given how messy his breakup with the Panthers became: Don't be surprised if Carolina's list of 2020 opponents is a factor in Newton's next move.