CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a perfect world for the Carolina Panthers, as owner David Tepper told a group of reporters late Monday afternoon, quarterback Cam Newton will recover completely from the Lisfranc injury that has him on injured reserve and lead the team to a Super Bowl.
But the world is far from perfect. That’s what makes the decision on Newton’s future at Carolina more difficult than simply taking the $19.1 million salary-cap savings from trading or cutting him and improving the rest of the roster.
Many questions must be answered before the fate of Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP, can be decided. That much Tepper made clear.
Here’s what we know after a hastily arranged question-and-answer session with the second-year owner:
Tepper hasn’t given up on Newton returning for the final year of his contract in 2020. He called him one of the best quarterbacks of all time and said if Newton’s foot completely heals, the first pick of the 2011 draft still can be one of the league’s top quarterbacks.
No decision has been made on whether the 30-year-old will have surgery on the foot, the injury to which ultimately ended his season after an 0-2 start.
Tepper likes Newton beyond football, and recounted all the great things Newton has done for Charlotte.
Tepper likes Newton’s replacement, Kyle Allen. He pointed out that, despite four interceptions in Sunday’s 29-3 loss to Atlanta and throwing nine interceptions in the past four games, Allen has a 5-3 record as the starter. He believes Allen has played above expectations and his rags-to-riches story has been great.
Tepper doesn’t like the long-term mediocrity the team has displayed since its inaugural season in 1995. Even though Carolina has made two Super Bowls, it has failed to post consecutive winning seasons and has an overall record of 195-198-1.
Newton has a .548 winning percentage (68-55-1) and has lost eight straight. Tepper did not say whether that is mediocre or not, but remember he is a former minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have enjoyed great Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks such as Terry Bradshaw (.633) and Ben Roethlisberger (.660).
Tepper wants, within 10 years, a new domed stadium that can host NCAA Final Fours and perhaps one day a Super Bowl. Tepper understands that asking the city for the millions it will take to build such a facility will be tougher if the long-term mediocrity continues.
Here’s what we don’t know:
Whether Newton’s left foot, which has been examined by at least three specialists, will heal to the point that he can perform at an MVP level.
How Allen will finish out the season. Should the Panthers (5-5) win their final six games, which seems highly unlikely, the undrafted second-year quarterback will have an 11-3 record. If that happens, Allen -- currently the NFL’s lowest-paid starting quarterback ($495,000) -- would be a bargain and Newton would become expendable with a 2020 cap figure of $21.1 million. If the team tanks and Allen winds up with a losing record -- which seems more likely than the former after two straight losses and with the 8-2 Saints next -- is he good enough to end the mediocrity?
And this one might be the biggest question, outside of Newton’s health: If the team doesn’t rally and misses the playoffs for the third time in four years since reaching Super Bowl 50, is that the end of coach Ron Rivera’s tenure? Tepper wouldn’t answer questions about the future of Rivera or general manger Marty Hurney at this gathering of about 20 media members, although he seemed to include them in his messaging. As often as he mentioned how much he hates losing and won’t accept mediocrity, it seems likely that wholesale changes are coming if the Panthers have another losing season. If that happens, Tepper's priority would be finding the next coach and general manager. He presumably would let the next staff make the call on Newton's future.
Tepper didn’t get a net worth of $12 billion as a hedge fund manager by operating in a vacuum. He surrounds himself with other smart people and makes logical decisions that make him money.
As Tepper mentioned during this roundtable session, he has fulfilled promises he made after paying an NFL-record $2.275 billion for the franchise. Among those is building an indoor practice facility, getting the process started for a state-of-the-art team headquarters and practice facility in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and laying the groundwork to purchase an MLS franchise.
He also promised to use Bank of America Stadium for other big events. Billy Joel is performing a concert there in April.
The only thing Tepper hasn’t done is win, and he made it clear that it will take a good quarterback to do that. That’s why he hasn’t completely ruled out Newton’s return.
That’s why, when asked what will go into the decision on Newton, Tepper responded with one word, his favorite word: winning.