Cam Newton's Road Back to Being a Franchise QB Starts on the Bench

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 26, 2020

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 27: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers looks on from the sidelines against the San Francisco 49ers during an NFL football game at Levi's Stadium on October 27, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

For Cam Newton, just like all the rest of us, the next step may be to wait a while.

Newton, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, was released Tuesday by the Panthers, who are rebuilding under new head coach Matt Rhule. It was mostly a business-as-usual move in the NFL, where it's standard practice for a new coach to say wonderful things about veterans before replacing them with "his guys." And Teddy Bridgewater may indeed be a worthy successor to Newton, though other recent additions like receiver Robby Anderson and backup quarterback PJ Walker suggest Rhule is a little too eager to replace members of the 2015 NFC champions with members of the 2015 Temple Owls.

It's also standard practice for would-be trade partners like the Bears to choose the likes of Nick Foles over of one of the most talented players in the league, because the best way to enjoy a 30-year career as an NFL coach or executive is to never, ever take a risk.

But the real world has plenty of unusual to go around right now, which is why what will happen next isn't standard practice: Newton won't be immediately snapped up by some quarterback-hungry team.

The Dolphins, Jaguars and Chargers are the odds-on favorites (literally, according to FanDuel) to sign Newton, if only because they are three of the few teams left with unsettled quarterback situations. But the Dolphins are in position to draft Tua Tagovailoa, and the last thing they need is a second talented scrambler waiting in line at the MRI machine. The Jaguars, meanwhile, are digging themselves out of a salary-cap sandpit and appear semi-committed to Gardner Minshew II.

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That leaves the Chargers, who have season tickets to sell and Tyrod Taylor, a designer-knockoff version of Newton, penciled in at quarterback. It would be fun to watch a healthy Newton playing pitch-'n'-catch with Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry, tossing screens to Austin Ekeler and running the occasional option in coach Anthony Lynn's multifaceted offense. There's only one problem (besides the "healthy Newton" question): Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, the Chargers were not interested in trading for Newton before his release. That doesn't mean they won't sign him now that his services may be cheaper, but it does mean they are lukewarm enough about Newton to risk letting him shop around to 30 other teams.

Jason E. Miczek/Associated Press

The Patriots also need a quarterback, and "Cam Newton replaces Tom Brady" would certainly be a fun headline. Snatching Newton when his market value is at rock bottom and completely reconfiguring the Patriots offense to suit him sounds like the sort of three-dimensional chess move Bill Belichick would make. But there's no evidence that he's planning that, and any team that might pursue Newton knows that this is the wrong offseason to try something experimental.

As you know, NFL free agents cannot simply visit a would-be employer's facilities for a physical right now. It was one thing for the Buccaneers to agree to terms with Tom Brady first and ask medical questions later; Brady hasn't had a significant injury in 12 years. Newton has a history of shoulder, knee, ankle, back and rib injuries, has suffered 311 sacks (including the playoffs) and hundreds of brutal hits over his nine-year NFL career, and—oh yeah—once almost died when he flipped his pickup truck.

Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, Newton underwent a physical coordinated by his agency and the Panthers on Monday, with both his shoulder and foot "checking out well." But minicamps and OTAs are unlikely to happen this spring, so any team that signs Newton won't get him into its facility to work with trainers, complete any rehab, shake off the rust, take on-field reps with new teammates or attend meetings to install an offense the way it normally would. Also, while Newton's offbeat personality is often overblown by his critics, any team that signs him would certainly want him to meet all the coaches face-to-face to make sure everyone is on the same page. 

Add it all up, and it's no surprise that no team wanted to trade the Panthers a draft pick for a potentially gimpy, probably rusty quarterback with a big contract and expectations when they can't even shake hands with him until training camp opens.

So it's likely that the Patriots are a pipe dream, the Dolphins and Jaguars are sucker's bets and the Chargers are merely the last lonely heart at the bar at closing time. If that's the case, Newton's only move may be to some team's bench. But that's not nearly as bad as it sounds for him.

Newton could end up signing a modest one-year deal to back up Russell Wilson in Seattle, Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City or Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. He'd make sense for those Super Bowl contenders: the ultimate rifle-armed, mobile backup for rifle-armed, mobile starters.

A year on the bench would do Newton a lot of good. He could get completely healthy. He could also redefine his oddball image a smidge. He could reinvent himself as an older, wiser version of himself after a season or two away from the limelight and then enter the free-agent pool just as the Brady generation retires.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 12: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers after their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on September 12, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Newton has time to wait, because quarterbacks with his talent often have productive late careers. John Elway was a cocky scrambler who "couldn't win the big game" in his 20s but a five-star general by his late 30s. Randall Cunningham grew from a flightier-than-a-flock-of-geese megastar to a distinguished veteran over the course of injuries, benchings and a brief retirement. Even after a stint on a bench, Newton (who turns 31 in May) will be bigger, stronger-armed and faster than most starting quarterbacks in their 20s, but with playoff experience and an MVP award on the shelf. 

In the upcoming era of 17-game seasons, even the most durable quarterbacks will get hurt now and then, so Newton will get another chance to play. If that opportunity comes when he's 100 percent healthy and has a strong supporting cast, Newton will be fast-tracked back to the ranks of the top franchise quarterbacks. If it happens for some rebuilding team that signed him because it didn't have any better ideas, he risks compounding his injuries behind a bad line (as he did last year) and furthering a growing reputation as a damaged-goods has-been.

So, the best course of action for Newton may be inaction: Wait through the draft to determine what jobs are open, don't be fooled by an immediate starting opportunity, and look for the best long-term option—even if it means swallowing a little pride.

We all know how tough it is to wait. We really, really do. But for Newton, it might well be the best choice.

It might also end up being his only choice.

                  

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

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