The Carolina Panthers have lost five of their last six games after starting off the season 3-0. Their slide can be at least partly attributed to Christian McCaffrey's stint on the IR, which ended this past week. But the biggest problem has been quarterback Sam Darnold.
Through the first three games of the year, Darnold completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for 888 yards with three TDs and one interception. He also ran in 5 TDs in his first four games. He wasn't playing out of his mind, but he was playing well enough to win and, most importantly, wasn't turning the ball over at the rate he usually does.
Once McCaffrey got hurt after Week 3, everything changed. Darnold has thrown 10 interceptions in the last six weeks. He's thrown only four touchdowns in that same timespan. It's a reversion back to the Darnold everybody knew in New York, tortured by ghosts and the poor teachings of Adam Gase. Carolina, considered an early contender for a Wild Card spot, now has to do a lot of work to even be in the running for the playoffs.
Darnold is the biggest problem. It's one thing to have a QB who can't win a game on his own. It's another thing entirely to have a QB who will lose his team games regularly, and that is who Darnold is right now.
He threw three picks in a very winnable game against the New England Patriots yesterday, including a back-breaking pick-six. It didn't help that the team lost two starting linemen to injury during the game, but too much pressure didn't cause him to gift J.C. Jackson a free touchdown. Darnold is not good, and when he's at his worst (a frequent sight over the last month), it's nigh impossible for Carolina to win.
This is especially concerning because the Panthers do not have another option. Their No. 2 QB is P.J. Walker, who has shown flashes but clearly has not earned the trust of the coaching staff. Darnold missed most of last week's practices while recovering from a concussion and was effectively a game-time decision, but still got the nod to start. Walker practiced with the starters all week. Matt Rhule's team did not believe Walker gave them a better chance to win than Darnold even under those circumstances.
So what can the Panthers do? They have a good team around Darnold. Even in a blowout loss last week, McCaffrey totaled over 100 yards from scrimmage. D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson threaten different levels of the field. Carolina's defense is legit; Brian Burns and Hassan Reddick are a dangerous pass-rushing duo, and the secondary will only get better as Stephon Gilmore gets healthier. That side of the ball is Rhule's specialty. There's no serious championship contention in Charlotte this year, but it's been four years since they even made the playoffs, and the bottom of the NFC playoff race is absolutely wide open. If they can turn it around in the second half of the year, the Panthers could definitely make the playoffs.
But only if they fix their quarterback situation. Walker isn't the answer, as proved by Rhule's decision to start Darnold this week. Darnold could turn it around. Maybe. But that doesn't seem like a solid bet, and it may be too late even if he does. The trade deadline has passed. Which leaves one real answer: Cam Newton.
Newton may not want to come back after he was ousted under the watch of owner David Tepper. Rhule may not want to tie any part of his Panthers legacy to Newton, the poster boy for when things were good last decade. Then there's the whole factor of having to create a new offense centered around Newton's strengths as a runner. But it's worth considering.
Newton can't be any worse than Darnold has been. Even last year, when Newton looked as bad as we've ever seen him, he only threw 10 picks while starting most of the season. Darnold has thrown 11 already. Newton's added value on the ground helps make up for his deficiencies as a passer that popped up in excess last year. And the man himself has made it clear he'll only sign with a team who will start him.
The strongest argument for signing Newton lies in considering the alternative. Either see what the former MVP has or keep rolling with Darnold and hope he can fix his chronic turnover issue that has plagued his entire career in the next three weeks. Rhule and his boss Tepper always knew a rebuild was going to be a long process-- that's why Rhule inked a seven-year contract. But they can't win football games without a reliable quarterback, and Darnold is not that. Even worse, he's locked in to be on the roster next year with a cap hit nearing $20 million. If signing Newton goes well, the Panthers can show real signs of progress from the youthful talent that makes up the foundation of the team while making the postseason.
And if it doesn't go well? Nothing will change. Regardless of who finishes the season at signal-caller, the Panthers will once again be trying to find an answer at quarterback. Darnold has proven he isn't the answer barring a miraculous turnaround. They really have nothing to lose at this point. It's time for Carolina to give Newton a call.