Cam Newton and the QB Controversy No One Wants to Talk About

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMay 9, 2019

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Jason Behnken/Associated Press

There's no Cam Newton-Will Grier quarterback controversy in Carolina.

Maybe if we keep telling each other that over and over again, it will be true.

Newton is an expensive veteran with a bum shoulder and a polarizing personality coming off a disappointing, injury-marred season. Grier is a third-round pick and hometown hero with video-game-worthy college stats. That sure sounds like the makings of a quarterback controversy.

Also, not that it should matter but …

(C'mon, just blurt it out)

Cam is a black guy and Grier is a white guy. And, you know, race often ends up becoming a wee bit of a factor these days in politics, society and everything else, including with quarterbacks. Especially with quarterbacks.

But this is fine. Nothing to see here. Keep calm and carry on.

Former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said as much on WFNZ radio (via 247Sports) earlier in the week. Delhomme recounted a story about Panthers coach John Fox calling in 2007 to reassure him that free-agent acquisition David Carr was signed strictly as a backup after Delhomme had an off year.

"I said, 'Coach, you don't have to call and tell me that,'" Delhomme said. "'That's fine. It is what it is.'"

Delhomme didn't fear Carr's arrival, and he believes that Newton will be in a similar situation with Grier. "He's not gonna worry one bit about Will Grier coming in," Delhomme said. "And it's nothing against Will, but that's the mindset that a starting quarterback in the NFL has."

Fair enough. Of course, Carr was a former first overall pick at the crossroads of his career, not a fresh-faced youngster from the outskirts of Charlotte brimming with potential after throwing 71 touchdowns in his final two seasons at West Virginia.

Delhomme played just three games in 2007; injuries to both him and Carr forced the Panthers to turn to undrafted rookie Matt Moore and 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde to get through the season. Furthermore, Delhomme had just one productive season after that, and the Panthers stunk for a few years during and after his decline, so the comparison doesn't have a happy ending for anyone involved.

Drafted in the third round, Will Grier, like the Panthers organization, has been deferential to Cam Newton and his starting role, but recent Newton's recent spate of injuries and inconsistent play has the makings of a quarterback controversy.
Drafted in the third round, Will Grier, like the Panthers organization, has been deferential to Cam Newton and his starting role, but recent Newton's recent spate of injuries and inconsistent play has the makings of a quarterback controversy.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Delhomme isn't the only Panthers personality downplaying a controversy. In the wake of Grier's draft selection two weeks ago, everyone is saying all the right things.

  • "Cam's the starting quarterback," Grier said at his first press conference. "I'm excited to learn from him, I'm excited to support him, and try to be the best teammate I can be to him and everybody else." 
  • "You would think that I feel intimidated; that's not the case here," Newton told Josh Sims of Fox 46 television, noting that he reached out to Grier and even watched him play in high school. "I'm excited. … I wanna make sure that I'm my best teammate—my best self—for everyone." 
  • "This has nothing to do with Cam Newton," Panthers GM Marty Hurney said after drafting Grier. "Cam Newton is our starting quarterback and franchise quarterback. This is just about bringing in young guys to develop and depth." Hurney has since appeared on local radio, repeating the words "depth" and "backup" whenever mentioning Grier as if reciting a serenity mantra. 

Of course, the only reason everyone is working so noticeably hard to "say the right things" is because they can all tell that there's a controversy to tiptoe around.  

Quarterback controversies often begin with these coy little games. The team and players make official assertions. My colleagues and I report those assertions because that's our job. No one wants to be the rabble-rouser who comes right out and admits the obvious: Things could get real interesting, confusing or ugly for the Panthers real soon.

Instead of being coy, let's be brutally honest for a few moments.

Newton underwent arthroscopic surgery in January. He told ESPN earlier this week that he is "feeling great" and that he thinks his shoulder is at full strength right now. But he hasn't been medically cleared yet, and he may not be a full participant in football activities until the start of training camp.

Newton missed the last two games of last season, and his shoulder clearly limited his velocity and distance in the second half of the year. Three mostly ordinary seasons have now passed since his All-Pro 2015 campaign. The Panthers have good reason to both be concerned about Newton's long-term health and impatient for better results.

Newton absorbs $23.2 million in cap space this year, per OverTheCap.com. He carries a $21.1 million cap number in 2020, the final year of his contract, but only $2 million (a leftover prorated signing bonus) is guaranteed. The Panthers could conceivably cut or trade Newton next offseason with minimal cap consequences or let him play out 2020 as an expensive lame duck if yet another season is swallowed up by lingering injuries and/or inconsistency.

In other words, there are sound football reasons to think that Grier is much more than just some backup who was drafted for depth. And that's before factoring in the other stuff, including the noisy contingent of fans who have rooted against Newton for a long time for reasons that have very little to do with football. Organizations like to pretend that they tune stuff like that out, but they can't.

And while we're being honest: Quarterback controversies are boffo box office in my line of work, and racial semiotics only make them more explosive. If things get sloppy in Carolina, a lot of us will happily wallow in it for fun and profit.

That's why the Panthers organization is so committed to controversy-free messaging. But it's too late. The seeds are already gestating, waiting for the right moment—Grier shining in minicamps while Newton rehabs, a stray comment by a coach, a preseason touchdown or interception, an injury setback, Newton wearing the wrong ascot with the wrong romper—to burst through the soil.

After leading the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance in 2015, Newton has recorded a 23-21 mark as the starter in the three seasons since.
After leading the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance in 2015, Newton has recorded a 23-21 mark as the starter in the three seasons since.Mike McCarn/Associated Press

Anyone who has ever watched a quarterback controversy unfold knows what happens after that: fans (and media types) taking sides, glowing reviews of Grier for accomplishing the ordinary, criticism of Newton for failing to be extraordinary, leading postgame questions for Ron Rivera (did you consider pulling Cam after that interception?), sports-talk speculation after every Panthers loss, anonymous reports of factions within the organization or locker room. Then, perhaps a spot start for Grier in which it doesn't matter if he looks like Tom Brady or Nathan Peterman because minds have already been made up.

Perhaps Newton quashes the controversy with a pillar-to-post MVP campaign. Perhaps his fastball is gone forever and moving on to Grier or someone else is the right call. The future most likely lies somewhere in the messy middle. That can be a problem because quarterback controversies produce many more clear losers than clear winners.

So let's be frank, fair and open-minded about both quarterbacks and the Panthers situation instead of playing dumb, playing favorites or catering to the angriest cranks in the cheap seats.

A Newton-Grier controversy for the Panthers is almost inevitable. Let's hope it's as football-focused and non-controversial as possible.

    

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.


All-Pro lineman Kelechi Osemele joins Adam Lefkoe on The Lefkoe Show to discuss the dysfunction in Oakland, his trade to the Jets and weighs in on the outrage aimed at Le'Veon Bell for missing OTAs.

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