The Carolina Panthers’ dismissal of Ron Rivera isn’t exactly surprising.
David Tepper bought the team in May 2018, a few months after Rivera signed a two-year contract extension. Carolina has struggled in the interim, going a disappointing 7-9 last season and entering Sunday’s action at 5-7. Tepper inherited Rivera, basically, and the prospect of consecutive losing seasons provided the perfect opportunity to make the Panthers’ longtime head coach the fall guy.
Rivera’s firing could be the first of many franchise-changing dominoes to fall in Carolina over the ensuing months. General manager Marty Hurney is rumored to be on the way out as well, and the Panthers have several decisions to make on marquee defenders this off-season.
But even before Rivera’s ouster, the biggest question facing Carolina revolved around Cam Newton. With the only coach he’s ever played for gone, will the Panthers’ longtime franchise quarterback follow him out the door?
No one doubts Newton’s talent. He’s been one of the most dynamic players in football throughout his career when healthy, leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015 while winning MVP.
Newton’s peers even voted him as the league’s best player in 2016.
Until Newton came along, many personnel decision-makers clung to the erroneous notion that quarterbacks who double as dangerous runners couldn’t achieve success at the highest level. He deserves immense, lasting credit for ridding the league of that pernicious line of thinking alone.
But that also points to the reality that makes Newton’s potential level of play going forward something largely unknown. His body was clearly breaking down even before suffering a dreaded Lisfranc sprain in his foot that’s caused him to miss 14 games this season.
If Newton’s rash of injuries leaves him unable to make plays with his feet, it’s fair to wonder just how effective he’ll be in a league increasingly reliant on the pass.
Looming even larger than Newton’s questionable health is his contractual status. There’s still one year remaining on the $103 million deal he signed in 2015, but Newton’s $18.6 million salary for next season is completely un-guaranteed, giving Carolina the option to release without incurring any salary-cap penalties.
Obviously, it would be a boon for the Panthers to suddenly open up nearly $20 million in cap space ahead of free agency – especially if Tepper cleans house in the front office, too.
But it also bears mentioning that Carolina can get off Newton’s contract at any time. It could potentially hang onto him going into next season, hoping he’ll be healthy enough to reach a level of play that keeps the team competitive as management searches for its new franchise signal-caller.
More likely is that Rivera’s ouster is the tipping point of a full-blown rebuilding process. In that case, moving on from Newton at season’s end makes the most sense for the Panthers.
Indeed, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported on Tuesday that Carolina’s next coach “could have a huge say” in his team’s quarterback situation.
The writing seems on the wall for Newton’s tenure with the Panthers. His biggest supporter is gone, his body isn’t getting any fresher, and shedding his contract would allow Carolina crucial cap flexibility.
Where would that leave Newton? Turning 31 in May, he should have plenty of solid football ahead of him, health permitting. Expect quarterback-needy teams to keep a close eye on him all off-season. The Chicago Bears could prove an especially seamless fit given their offensive system, while his addition could give the Los Angeles Chargers the star power they need to be relevant in Southern California.
Either way, Newton’s days with the Panthers seem officially numbered. The next chapter of his career, in many ways, began on Tuesday when Rivera was fired.