Ron Rivera is obviously trying to destroy Cam Newton.
He's not the only NFL coach seemingly trying to kill his own quarterback this season, a trend that doesn't make much sense given how fragile some playing the position seem to be.
Maybe Rivera secretly hates his quarterback. That's the only explanation for leaving the Carolina Panthers' signal-caller in during an absolute thrashing by the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night. Newton, who was clearly hobbling during the game, was left to the wolves, er, birds, despite being down 38-7 at the start of the fourth quarter.
The game was so far gone with nine minutes to go that Jon Gruden was making a smoothie in the television booth. HE WAS MAKING A SMOOTHIE, and yet Newton stayed in the game.
When Mark Sanchez hit Jordan Matthews for an 18-yard touchdown with 11 minutes and 43 seconds to go in the contest—if you can call it that—Newton was 19-of-31 for 222 yards and four turnovers, three on interceptions and one on a fumble. Newton had given up as many points with direct passes to the other team as his squad had scored in the entire game to that point, and still, he was sent hobbling back out onto the field for some inexplicable reason.
Rivera, Carolina's head coach, was on SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday and got asked, perhaps more delicately than this, Why the hell was Cam still on the field when you were down 38 points in the fourth quarter of a game you had no chance to win?!
"I wanted to make sure he stayed in," Rivera said on Movin' the Chains on SiriusXM 88, "because I wanted him to get into that rhythm.
"The more he works," Rivera continued, "the better off we're going to be."
Rivera said that the Panthers have had a bunch of different personnel on the field this year, and despite being more than halfway through the season, he still finds the continuity between players lacking, in part because he can't seem to keep all of his best guys on the field.
"We've gone through a lot of situations and circumstances," Rivera said (quotes courtesy of SiriusXM Sports). "We've had different groups of guys out there at different times and we've got to build this continuity, we've got to build this familiarity with one another."
You know a good way to make sure guys stay on the field to build that continuity, coach? Maybe stop trying to get some of them killed.
Through 10 games this season, the Panthers have run 649 plays on offense, and 355 have come by way of Newton's arm or legs. He's been sacked 30 times, second-most in the league behind Colin Kaepernick (31), and some of those plays—and many more hits, hurries or knocks any quarterback would take in his situation—are coming in games that are beyond salvaging for the 3-6-1 Panthers.
In a few games this season, Newton has admittedly had little choice but to put the Panthers on his back. In the Week 6 tie with the Cincinnati Bengals, for example, Newton threw the ball 46 times and rushed another 17, accounting for nearly 400 yards of total offense and three scores. The Panthers ran 80 plays in that game, with 63 coming from Newton's arm and/or legs.
It's one thing to rely so much on Newton in the fourth quarter of a game heading to overtime, but it's entirely another to rely on him as much as Rivera did Monday night in a flat-out blowout.
There have been 147 games played in the NFL this season, and 49 have been decided by 17 or more points, an average of nearly five three-score victories (read: blowouts) per week. Carolina has been in six of those games, losing five.
In the first three of those lopsided Panthers defeats, Rivera did pull Newton at some point in the fourth quarter. Trailing 35-10 to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4, the Panthers gave Newton one additional fourth-quarter drive before Derek Anderson came in for relief.
In Week 7, Carolina was down 28-0 to the Green Bay Packers in the second quarter and fell behind 35-3 with 10:20 left in the third. Newton stayed in, eventually leading Carolina to a meaningless touchdown before getting pulled with 7:17 to play in the game.
Two weeks later, the New Orleans Saints beat the Panthers 28-10, and with just over five minutes to go in a three-score contest, Newton was put back out onto the field for a series at the end of the game. He was sacked twice.
And still that one is not as bad as what Rivera asked Newton to do this past week, especially with some on the Panthers staff wondering if Newton is anywhere near full strength.
Newton is nursing a right foot injury the Panthers training staff believes might be the result of compensating for the lingering soreness in his left ankle, a source told FOX Sports. The combination of lower-leg issues could explain why Newton has appeared to be sluggish, particularly on Monday night while he was trying to escape Philadelphia Eagles pass rushers during a 45-21 loss for the Panthers.
Remember that Newton's ankle was surgically repaired in the offseason, and that wasn't even the reason he missed the first week of the year. That missed start was because of a rib injury he suffered in the preseason. Oh, and the Fox report indicated that Newton is battling a thumb issue too. All the more reason to leave him out on the field, coach!
If Rivera is truly of the belief that the more Newton works, the better off the team will be, he might want to take more efficient measures to ensure his quarterback is still able to work by season's end.
It's not just Rivera by any means. There are a lot of NFL coaches who do this to their quarterbacks. Tom Coughlin clearly hates Eli Manning, for one.
Manning and the New York Giants have been a part of four of the aforementioned 49 blowouts this season—with another loss coming at home to Indianapolis by 16 points, which is technically two scores and thus, by this metric, not a blowout—and the Giants starter has attempted 321 of the team's 326 passes.
In a Week 6 shellacking by Philadelphia, Manning was still slinging it with just over three minutes to go in the game despite being down 27 points. Ryan Nassib didn't enter the contest until the Giants' final drive that started with 1:51 to go. All five of Nassib's passes this entire season came on that drive.
Down 38-17 in Seattle this past weekend, Manning was still throwing passes with five minutes to play, finishing the day with a fumble after getting sacked, because being out on the rainy turf in Seattle down 21 points with three minutes to go is really something a franchise quarterback needs to be doing in today's NFL.
A week earlier, Manning and the Giants fell behind 30-10 on Monday night to Indianapolis, a score that ballooned to 37-10 after a sack-fumble by Manning led to another Colts touchdown.
The Colts added a field goal to start the fourth quarter, and despite being down by 30 points with less than 15 minutes to play, Manning was left out on the field, throwing two cosmetic touchdown passes on three drives before Nassib came in with seven seconds to go to hand off the ball on Eli's behalf.
At least Coughlin got him out that time.
Some coaches seem to see the merit in protecting their starters. That same week Eli was left out on the field for no reason but further embarrassment and potential injury, both Ryan Tannehill and Philip Rivers were pulled at the start of the fourth quarter in a 37-0 blowout win for the Miami Dolphins over the San Diego Chargers.
It's not always the case that a coach seems hellbent on keeping his starter out in a blowout; it's just this odd sense that "we can still win" comes at a higher risk than necessary when dealing with such an important position on the field.
It's not just the losers who are staying in too long. There was speculation in many NFL circles that Tony Romo should have sat an entire game against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week in order to rest his broken back. He played—and played well—but there's as much a sense of relief after the game as accomplishment when testing fate with franchise signal-callers.
Romo was eventually pulled in the victory but not until under seven minutes remained in the game with the Dallas Cowboys up 31-9.
Why did Manning need to be in that game?
What benefit could it have given a team with Super Bowl aspirations to even dare risking him on the field in a game that had been long since over?
Wouldn't it benefit the backup to get more time in actual live games? You know, just in case?
In his record-breaking game against the San Francisco 49ers, Manning played three quarters, giving way to Osweiler for the final 15 minutes. Kaepernick, however, stayed in the game—a 42-10 contest—until the 4:18 mark of the fourth quarter. He was sacked twice.
I won't lie: I tried to look at all 49 blowouts this season to see when both quarterbacks were pulled. And there were so many times a starter stayed in far beyond his usefulness that it became unwieldy to chronicle.
In other words, starting quarterbacks stay in a lot. Too much.
And that's a dangerous game coaches play to prove a point that no contest is lost until the final whistle. Injuries don't know what the score is when they come.
Had Arizona's Carson Palmer injured his knee five minutes later than he did, we may all be crying about the cautionary tales of leaving your stars in during blowouts. (To be fair, the game didn't become a blowout until Palmer got injured and may have turned into one because of his exit and Drew Stanton's entrance into it.)
Romo's broken back happened in the middle of the third quarter of a game in which Dallas lost to Washington. Nick Foles hurt his shoulder in a close game in the first half at Houston two weeks ago, making way for Sanchez.
Quarterbacks get hurt all the time, so why do coaches still risk leaving their starters on the field in games they mathematically cannot win? People ripped Bill Belichick for "benching" Tom Brady earlier in the year in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, but what if the second-half hook was just a way to ensure his franchise guy avoids unnecessary injury in a game long past lost? That move seems pretty smart in hindsight.
Perhaps Rivera should take a lesson from that. It's one thing to be known as a gambler by faking a punt or going for it on the occasional fourth down in your own half of the field. It's entirely another to gamble with the face of your franchise for no reason.
Rivera was right about one thing: The more Newton or any star quarterback works, the better his team will be. That's advice worth taking, not just saying.