CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While Cam Newton remains optimistic about his chances of playing for the Carolina Panthers next season, the team is remaining mostly silent on the quarterback’s future.
"He’s rehabbing, that’s all I can say," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney told The Associated Press in reference to the foot injury that caused Newton to miss the final 14 games last season.
Hurney refused to answer several follow-up questions about Newton’s future with the team or the comments the QB made recently at the Super Bowl, where he said he’s "absolutely" certain he’ll be back in Carolina.
Newton described on the Tiki & Tierney radio show last week an "unbelievable conversation" with Panthers owner David Tepper, new coach Matt Rhule and Hurney.
"I left that meeting inspired," Newton said on the show "I told them, `You won’t find another person in that locker room with more to prove — not only to you, but I got to prove to myself."’
But Hurney isn’t discussing that meeting — or much else.
The Panthers haven’t given any assurances they plan to bring Newton back next season. And the reality is they might not know at this point what direction they’re headed with the 31-year-old former league MVP.
Tepper has previously said the team would wait to see how Newton responds to rehabilitation following surgery on his foot before making any decisions about the QB. Hurney declined to say how that rehab is going or when the team expects Newton to be healthy.
The Panthers are embarking on a major rebuilding process after hiring a college head coach in Rhule and a young offensive co-ordinator in Joe Brady. At LSU, Brady was the Tigers passing game co-ordinator. Quarterback Joe Burrow helped lead the team to a national title.
The Panthers have also lost perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly to retirement and released 34-year-old veteran tight end Greg Olsen.
That has brought into question why the team would want to bring back Newton when they appear to be headed in a different direction.
Newton has struggled in recent years, losing his last eight starts for the Panthers while battling through shoulder and foot issues. He played only two games last season and failed to throw a touchdown pass. He was a non-factor in the run game, which has been his strength through the years.
There is a huge financial element to consider, too.
Newton is entering the final year of a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension. He’s scheduled to cost $21.1 million under this season’s salary cap, but the team could free up $19 million in cap space by trading or releasing the league’s 2015 Most Valuable Player. So if the team parts ways with Newton, they’d only be on the hook for a $2 million cap hit in 2020.
Tepper said in December that his focus is avoiding the "long-term mediocrity" that has plagued the franchise.
He’s made it clear that he wants sustained excellence and went out of his way to say that will take some time and patience.
"Do you think I can promise to anyone that things can be great in one year?" Tepper said. "Do you believe in the Tooth Fairy? … If you think something great gets built in one second, then that’s wrong. You shouldn’t expect it, and fans shouldn’t expect. I’m not talking about one year. I’m talking about a standard that will be built and sustained."
The Panthers don’t have much proven depth behind Newton at quarterback.
Kyle Allen struggled in Newton’s absence with more turnovers than touchdown passes, while rookie Will Grier failed to impress after starting the final two games of the season, although the Panthers were plagued by injuries at the time.
The Panthers have the No. 7 pick in the NFL draft and drafting a quarterback remains an option.
However, a Brady-Burrow reunion in Carolina seems unlikely given the Cincinnati Bengals have the No. 1 pick and appear enamoured with the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback.