There were legitimate reasons for it to happen and all kinds of ways to see it coming, but if you were surprised by the Carolina Panthers' decision to release longtime franchise quarterback Cam Newton in March, you're surely surprised that he still hasn't signed somewhere else.
Newton turned 31 on Monday, which is by no means an advanced age for an NFL quarterback. He's a former league MVP who has taken a team to the Super Bowl and, just two years ago, was having one of the better seasons of his career before shoulder and foot injuries derailed him. On résumé alone, he'd qualify as an upgrade for at least half of the NFL's teams at the quarterback position.
But none of those teams has signed him, and there has been no indication of any serious interest by any team in doing so. Jameis Winston, cut loose by the Buccaneers in favor of Tom Brady, signed a bargain deal to back up Drew Brees in New Orleans. Andy Dalton, released by the Bengals in favor of Joe Burrow, signed with the Cowboys to back up Dak Prescott. Brian Hoyer (New England), Nick Foles (Chicago) and Newton's former Carolina backup Kyle Allen (Washington) are among the quarterbacks who've been sought and acquired by teams this offseason.
It makes no sense if you just stacked up "QB Ability" next to "Teams That Could Use a Cam Newton." He is the prom king who all of a sudden can't get a date. The Ferrari left alone in the garage while everyone's out driving Fords. How could you, if you're the Bears, or the Jaguars, or literally any team in the AFC East, look at your quarterback depth chart right now and not think signing Newton would make you better?
The answer, of course, is that it's more complicated than that.
If the Cam Newton of 2015 had been released by the Panthers this offseason, he'd have been signed in less than a minute, to a record-breaking quarterback contract, by one of 12 or 15 teams. But this isn't 2015, and the issues keeping Newton from signing with a team range from the frustratingly rigid to those that are uniquely 2020:
A tricky offseason for health concerns
One of the issues teams cite when discussing the prospect of signing Newton is that there's no way to know what kind of player they'd be signing. This is a player with as many surgeries as games played over the past 16 months. When teams consider players who are coming off recent surgeries, it becomes especially important to give them physicals. In a case like Newton's, when you're talking about a quarterback who has taken 317 more hits than any other since 2011, teams aren't going to be satisfied with workout videos and third-person medical exams. They're going to want the doctors they trust, the doctors they're paying, to check him out with their own eyes. And in the current climate, with the NFL imposing pandemic-related restrictions in line with those in place around the country, in-person physicals are still prohibited.
"You're certainly not going to sign him sight unseen," an NFL personnel man said of Newton. "This is a quarterback who has a shoulder injury, right?"
Well ... maybe. The shoulder surgery he had following the 2018 season was his second in two years, but the Panthers kept telling everyone all through 2019 that the shoulder was fine and it was his left foot -- he underwent surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury in December -- that cost him pretty much the entire season. Running has always been a vital part of Newton's game. No quarterback in NFL history has more games with both a rushing touchdown and a passing touchdown than Newton's 39. If his foot is injured, it stands to reason that he won't be the same runner he has always been.
"Part of what makes Cam, Cam," said an official with one NFL team that has been in the veteran quarterback market this offseason, "is that he's a freak athlete."
Is he still? And if not, what kind of contract would teams give him? A healthy Newton offers plenty as a passer, but teams are still going to want their own doctors to get a look at that shoulder. And even if the shoulder checks out fine and he can't run the way he used to run, he's not "peak" Cam Newton. When you look at it in those terms, it becomes a little bit easier to figure out why a team might prefer a Winston or a Dalton as its backup -- especially at the prices for which those two signed.
Which brings us to ...
What kind of contract could Newton get?
Newton's last contract extension with the Panthers, signed in 2015, was a five-year deal worth about $103 million. It sounded big at the time, but by today's standards, the average of $20.6 million a year is more than reasonable for a starting quarterback -- especially one who would win the MVP award a few months after signing it, as Newton did. The reason the Panthers cut him wasn't purely financial. He'd have cost them $19.1 million in non-guaranteed salary and $21.1 million against their salary cap this year: a bargain for a 31-year-old Newton if he's healthy. The Panthers moved on because, as we've already discussed, they weren't sure he would be healthy, and because they weren't planning to extend him as they retool things under new coach Matt Rhule.
Newton's replacement, Teddy Bridgewater, signed for three years and $63 million with $33 million guaranteed. At this point, though he's far more accomplished than Bridgewater, Newton would have to count himself extraordinarily lucky to get a similar deal. Given the injury questions, he has no shot at the $25 million-a-year numbers Brady and Philip Rivers received. And forget the $91 million in guarantees the Titans gave Ryan Tannehill. No quarterback who's signing at this point in the cycle is going to sniff the top of the market.
There's a narrative out there that the Panthers did Newton harm by waiting as long as they did to release him -- holding onto him through the first wave of free agency and until after the pandemic imposed restrictions on travel and in-person physicals. But league insiders dispute that notion, saying it was easy to figure out that Newton would be available based on the finances, the health questions and the significant coaching staff changes in Carolina. His contract would have been a lot less financially onerous than the Foles contract. There's no way the Bears traded for Foles and then, a week later, saw that the Panthers cut Newton and said, "Dang it! We should have waited!" Teams knew Newton was an option and they chose different ones, which means he probably was never going to break the bank on this year's quarterback market.
And the backup QB market, even for veterans, has been all over the map this offseason. Marcus Mariota got $7.5 million guaranteed to back up (compete with?) Derek Carr in Las Vegas. Winston got $1.1 million guaranteed to backup Brees. Dalton got $3 million to back up Prescott. All of those guys can earn more in incentives depending on how much they actually play and how the team performs when they do, but the range of the deals indicates that the appropriate contract for a veteran quarterback looking to build himself back into a starting role is a moving target.
Plus, teams don't even know how much appetite Newton would even have for a backup job. Which brings us to ...
Would Newton accept a backup role?
A large part of Newton's current problem is that the league is experiencing a bizarre supply-and-demand twist at the quarterback position. It feels as if only a couple of years ago, we were writing stories about a quarterback shortage. Now, after 17 teams have drafted 18 quarterbacks in the first round over the past five years, just about every team feels as if it has its guy. There weren't a lot of starting quarterback jobs open when this offseason began, and there are fewer now.
There was some industry speculation about Newton to the Chargers, but they like Tyrod Taylor and just drafted Justin Herbert with the sixth pick. Washington made some sense, given that former Panthers coach Ron Rivera is running things there now, but it drafted Dwayne Haskins last year and just signed Allen to back him up. The Patriots say they like Jarrett Stidham and, as of now, don't have the cap space for Newton. As always, things could change in New England depending on how far Newton's price drops, but for now, we're told the Patriots are not planning to go that way. Jacksonville wants to give a real shot to Gardner Minshew, but that's another team to watch in case things don't work out with the 2019 sixth-round draft pick.
At this point, there's no obvious team that would sign Newton and anoint him the starter without conditions. And bringing Newton in as a backup isn't as easy as it sounds, either, given the way so many NFL teams still view that role.
Stephen A. advises Cam not to sign as a backup
Stephen A. Smith explains that he would rather see Cam Newton sit out the 2020 season than sign somewhere as a backup.
For example: Newton would fit in Buffalo, where the coach and general manager come from Carolina and starter Josh Allen is a big, mobile quarterback himself. But adding Newton behind a young guy still finding his footing as an NFL starter creates potential issues that organizations and coaching staffs fear. I'm not saying this is specifically the case in Buffalo, but I'm just using the team as a hypothetical example: Bring in Newton as Allen's backup, and no matter what you say publicly, you're creating a difficult situation for Allen. Every time he has a bad game, you'll be dealing with calls from your fan base (and possibly from your own locker room or coaching staff) to start Cam. If you're developing a young quarterback, teams believe, that's not necessarily the best way to show you support him.
The same can be said for places like Denver, Cincinnati, Miami, Arizona, both New Yorks and Washington, where teams are trying to build around young guys and want to create as fertile a situation as possible for that young quarterback's success. Newton, whether you agree or not, is going to be viewed by some teams as a less-than-ideal backup option because of that old NFL buzzword "distraction." It still exists as an obstacle in situations like this. If Newton's going to land a backup job right now, it's probably going to be behind an unassailably secure starter, like the one who's in front of Winston in New Orleans. So ...
What happens now?
The sense among people close to this situation is that Newton is in no rush. His best bet at this point is probably to wait things out and see whether a quarterback situation changes, either because of injury or because Plan A doesn't appear to be working out. Especially with no in-person practices or minicamps to attend, there's no compelling rush to get into someone's facility or program and get a jump on things. Whatever current need there is for backup quarterbacks isn't going to dry up over the next couple of months, and if he waits, he could find himself with one or more starting opportunities than are currently in front of him.
Where this gets interesting is if the season begins and he still doesn't have a job. Does Newton, who has made more than $120 million in salary in his career, sit out a portion or all of the regular season while he waits for a team to give him the deal and the role he wants? Does he swallow hard and take a backup job?
All that's clear is that the landscape for Newton is very different from the one he might have expected when the Panthers first put him on the market. And until that landscape changes, he and the rest of us will continue to marvel at the fact that a quarterback as talented and accomplished as he is can't find a job.