One went so far as to suggest on social media he would press charges against everyone in Carolina’s front office if Cam Newton wins a Super Bowl this season.
Former Carolina tight end Greg Olsen didn’t help when he tweeted his belief that the Patriots made a great deal. Isaiah Thomas also chimed in: “Happy for @CameronNewton let them continue to doubt GREATNESS!” Newton is arguably the most iconic and popular athlete in the history of Charlotte sports, so him moving on is hard for some swallow.
Some pundits are putting the Patriots back in the championship picture, a prospect that seemed bleak after Tom Brady signed with Tampa Bay. They are in it because the Panthers in March moved on from Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP, and moved forward with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback.
The Patriots are in it at a bargain-basement price of a reported $7.5 million, a ridiculously low figure for a player of Newton’s talent and accomplishments.
It is, as ESPN colleague Mike Reiss wrote, a no-lose situation for New England.
It doesn’t mean ending its nine-year relationship with the first pick of the 2011 draft was the wrong call for Carolina — even if Newton is 100% healthy after foot and shoulder injuries sidelined him for much of the past two seasons.
Teddy Bridgewater: Signing the former New Orleans backup was a priority for the Panthers in free agency. Had that not happened, they still had Newton for the final year of his six-year deal at $21.2 million, which was relatively low compared to other established NFL starting quarterbacks. That’s why they kept him on the roster as long as they did after finding no takers for a trade. It might have hurt Newton’s ability to avoid 96 days of unemployment, but it was the right move for the team.
Once Bridgewater agreed to a three-year, $63 million deal, there was no reason to keep Newton and two quarterbacks for a combined $35.2 million. So on March 24, the day before Bridgewater’s signing became official, Newton was released.
As first-year coach Matt Rhule said in April, the release had more to do with Bridgewater being a better fit for offensive coordinator Joe Brady than it did a lack of respect for Newton. Remember, Brady worked with Bridgewater in 2018 with the Saints before helping LSU win last season’s national title. “Teddy for us is exactly what we want,” Rhule said last week when asked about analysts questioning Bridgewater’s ability to throw the deep ball.
Economics: The Panthers are in rebuilding mode after consecutive losing seasons, 7-9 and 5-11. Newton is 31. He has taken far more hits than any quarterback in the NFL since 2011 because of his propensity to run. He has missed 16 games the past two seasons due to injuries that have required three surgeries.
If he had a decent 2020 season for Carolina, he would have demanded a salary of $30 million-plus moving forward. The Panthers cleared $19.1 million from the cap this year by releasing Newton and put themselves in better shape financially to rebuild for the future without being weighed down by an expensive, long-term deal at quarterback.
Bridgewater counts only $14 million against this year’s cap and $23 million and $26 million, respectively, in the next two years. Those numbers in part allowed Carolina to make Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid back in the NFL with a four-year, $64 million extension. Those numbers will help the Panthers sign free agents in the next few seasons that can help build a team that can be a playoff contender.
And Bridgewater is 27. Even though he had a career-threatening leg injury in 2016, he has taken far fewer hits than Newton and went 5-0 as the starter last season while New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees rehabbed a hand injury. Newton has lost his past eight starts.
Leadership: Newton has come a long way in terms of leadership from early in his career when he sulked on the sideline with a towel over his head. He was without question the leader of the 2015 team that went 15-1 during the regular season and reached the Super Bowl.
Newton also demanded attention for things that went beyond football, from his dancing to most notably his sometimes outrageous attire. That could have distracted from the culture Rhule is trying to build. Bridgewater blends into the crowd.
“He’s the guy that rides the bike to work and stops and talks to everybody,” Rhule said. “He’s that guy.”
Bridgewater reminds Rhule of what he saw as an offensive assistant with the New York Giants in 2012. He recalled how two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning took over a meeting room and demanded respect with his intelligence.
“It punches you in the face with, ‘Wow! That’s really, really intelligent,’” Rhule said of Bridgewater. “You see how people stop and listen to him. … He’s great at leading people. … My interactions with him have been awesome. He’s going to be a guy our team goes to battle for.”
Joe Brady: Rhule admitted, because of the pandemic and this being Brady’s first year as an offensive coordinator, he really won’t be able to judge the 30-year-old coach until the season begins. However, he likes that Brady and Bridgewater worked well together in New Orleans and kept in touch.
That Brady’s system requires more pinpoint passing is another reason Rhule wasn’t concerned with what skeptics said about Bridgewater and the deep pass.
Bridgewater, by the way, has a career completion percentage of 65.2. Newton’s is 59.6.
“The reason I wanted to hire Joe was because at LSU he ran a version of the Saints’ system,” Rhule said. “As a college coach I studied NFL tape all the time. I had so much respect for Sean Payton and their system, their ability to consistently execute and play at the highest of levels.
“So we see Joe with his own take, but on something that is really strong fundamentally and sound fundamentally.”
Reality: While Newton might be able to help New England and coach Bill Belichick win a Super Bowl in 2020, that likely wasn’t going to happen at Carolina this year or in the next few years.
Rhule was given a seven-year deal because owner David Tepper understands rebuilding takes time. In his previous two projects, Rhule went 2-10 his first year at Temple and 1-11 his first year at Baylor before leading both to double-digit wins by his third year.
He did that by building the right chemistry with who he calls the right players.
He obviously believed Bridgewater was the right player and Newton was not. He made the transition for many of the same reasons the Charlotte Hornets allowed star Kemba Walker to leave for the Boston Celtics.
The Panthers’ trajectory hasn’t changed because Superman has flown north.