No one in the Carolina Panthers’ organization — not owner David Tepper, nor coach Ron Rivera nor quarterback Cam Newton, himself — can say with certainty what this offseason will bring for Newton’s surgically-repaired right shoulder. Not publicly, at least.
What Tepper has made clear, however, is the team is not zeroing-in on Newton making a full recovery before the 2019 season begins. Call it preparing for the worst, if you will.
The Panthers’ owner said he doesn’t know if Newton will require his second shoulder surgery since 2017 this offseason, but priority number one is getting him back on the field.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“The only thing that’s safe to me to say is from our people inside and his people on the outside. There’s a lot of people looking to figure out what’s the best course of action,” Tepper said. “Hopefully, he’ll be better and good in the first game of the year.”
Carolina’s coaching staff initiated a “new normal” practice schedule for Newton beginning in Week 8, which limited his weekly practice reps. Although the effort was made to preserve the eighth-year quarterback’s shoulder, Tepper said the fact that it was necessary, “probably was a big question mark — even for us.”
The Panthers eventually shut Newton down for the team’s final two games of the season, paving the way for Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen to make the first two starts of their careers.
Both quarterbacks were injured during their respective starts — a product of an offensive line Tepper said “looked like a disaster.” But Allen’s performance in the season finale affected confidence within the organization, enough to make Allen one of the options the Panthers will consider if Newton misses time in 2019.
“We are a little bit — not a lot — but a little bit happier after seeing a performance in the last game of the year by Kyle,” Tepper said. “Everybody has to be a little happier after that, but we have to recognize that we may have to do things through the year if (Newton’s shoulder doesn’t get better).
“We’ve got to make sure we have our options open in all ways possible, just in case. We’re all hoping everything will be great - and it could be great. Look at (the Colts’ Andrew) Luck this year. Who knows?”
That final tidbit from the first-year owner should perk a few ears up throughout the fanbase. Luck missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury similar to Newton’s, but he returned in 2018 to lead the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC Divisional round.
Does that mean Carolina would consider shutting Newton down for the 2019 season? If it means he’ll make a full recovery, yes.
“If you told me that he took a year off and could be fully recovered and everything else and that’s what it took, an extra year, why wouldn’t you do that?” Tepper said. “Now, we would have to do other things and we’d have to go out and get another quarterback, which, if you could find me some more cap space, I’d appreciate that.”
Tepper’s point brings us back to the aforementioned preparation for the worst. The Panthers can hope for Newton to make a full recovery all they’d like, but they won’t do so without a backup plan in place. It just so happens, several starting-caliber quarterbacks will be available this offseason.
Nick Foles will test free agency after once again taking over for Carson Wentz and leading the Philadelphia Eagles to the playoffs. But he may be too expensive, and his play over the past two seasons has likely earned him a multi-year deal as a starter.
The Baltimore Ravens will reportedly move on from former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, who will likely attract teams needing a short-term starter. Same deal with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’s made a career out of overachieving as a stop-gap quarterback.
Or the Panthers could sign a veteran to back up Allen. Either way, it doesn’t appear the team will look to the NFL draft to solve potential quarterback problems.
Whatever Carolina decides, Tepper says it’ll be with the team’s long-term success in mind. So go ahead and rule out tanking if Newton can’t play.
“When you make a decision … you want to keep your options open as much as you possibly can, and you’d like to put yourself in a position to win,” he said. “Not a position to lose, but a position to win. That means you keep your options open and try to have as much space as you possibly can.
“You know what you might be facing next year — or not facing. Hopefully, Cam’s shoulder is fantastic and we’re all happy. If it’s not, you may need more cap space. You may need to be able to go out and find somebody. If you don’t, you guys are going to be writing what a dope we are around here.
“You want to put yourself as best you can in a position to win, and I’m talking for the long term.”
Marcel Louis-Jacques: 704-358-5015, @Marcel_LJ