Carolina Panthers' future at QB more muddled than ever after Cam Newton benched

MIAMI – Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said it’s no time to panic after Sunday’s 33-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

This came a week after he told everyone to “hold on’’ and “trust” him following a loss to the Washington Football Team.

Maybe it is time to panic, because exactly whom can the Panthers trust?

Carolina is 0-2 since Newton took over as the starter, but as the Panthers (5-7) enter their Week 13 bye, their playoff hopes look to be on life support despite a 2-0 record in the NFC South and four of their final five games against division opponents.

This isn’t Newton’s fault. Newton fell into this situation when it became apparent that quarterback Sam Darnold, who the Panthers traded for in the offseason, wasn’t the answer even before he went on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

But Newton's poor performance Sunday magnified just how muddled the quarterback situation is for the rest of this season and the future. If Newton can’t rebound and prove he’s the answer beyond this season, what’s next?

Coach Matt Rhule defused any thought that Newton won’t be his starter when the team resumes play Dec. 12 against the Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET, FOX). That his only other option is P.J. Walker -- who replaced Newton in the fourth quarter Sunday because he had a better grasp of the two-minute offense -- made that decision easy.

Rhule reiterated he didn’t plan to make a change at quarterback on Monday after reviewing film.

“I would absolutely anticipate starting Cam Newton,’’ he said. “That would not mean we wouldn’t play P.J. as well. That’s no slight against Cam. Keeping people off balance, maybe. But I don’t know that yet. P.J. has known me long enough to know I don’t make promises.’’

Newton promised to spend the bye week diving into areas of offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s offense that he hasn’t had time to after beginning his second stint with Carolina just two and a half weeks ago.

He insisted he can get comfortable enough that what happened Sunday won’t happen again.

But there are no guarantees. And if he looks as bad the final five games as he did in south Florida on Sunday, then the Panthers again will be in the market for a starting quarterback.

Fox analyst Moose Johnston emphasized that during the broadcast, saying the Panthers need to figure out the quarterback spot. He didn’t rule out Darnold getting an opportunity to show he can be a solution.

“But it’s still a position in flux for Matt Rhule,’’ Johnston said.

Rhule said Monday that Darnold (shoulder) began throwing this past week and will be evaluated when the team returns from the bye.

Barring a turnaround there, it’s clear Darnold will be the league’s highest-paid backup next season because the Panthers are obligated to pay the $18.8 million he is due in 2022, since they picked up his fifth-year option after acquiring him in the trade with the New York Jets.

And no team would take Darnold in a trade with that price tag unless the Panthers agree to pay part of his deal.

That’s not beyond them. They already are paying $7 million on top of the $10 million that was fully guaranteed to Teddy Bridgewater after letting him go to Denver for a sixth-round pick. The Broncos are only paying Bridgewater $3 million in 2021.

Carolina is taking a $4.7 million hit on Darnold this season, in addition to the $18.8 million next year, and it's taking a $6 million cap hit on Newton this year with $4.5 million guaranteed.

That Newton is 32 and has taken more hits than any quarterback since 2011 because of his playing style complicates the matter further. He likely doesn’t have many good years left.

If Sunday’s any indication, he may not have any.

His 23.8 completion percentage was the worst by a former NFL MVP with a minimum of 20 pass attempts – ever. Peyton Manning had that distinction with 25% in a game in 2015, the year Newton won the MVP.

Manning retired after beating Newton and the Panthers in the Super Bowl that season.

If Newton doesn’t bounce back, the Panthers will be scouring free agency for a quarterback. It’s highly unlikely that if Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson left their respective teams, they would want to come to Carolina, so that won’t be the answer.

The draft, at least now, doesn’t appear to have any sure-fire solutions.

So Sunday’s loss and performance by Newton muddled everything moving forward. The only guarantee is that Rhule won’t overreact and he will continue to stay focused on the next game as always.

His first goal is figuring out how to beat teams that have figured out what he called the “formula’’ for beating the Panthers -- stop the run and pressure the quarterback.

That the offense struggles against zero blitzes as it did Sunday complicates matters further. It’s hard to evaluate the quarterback when so many other things are going wrong, but there still are things Newton could have done to counter the pressure.

That goes back to making the right decisions, throwing to the right receiver, throwing with better timing -- all things that were off against Miami.

“We need the quarterbacks to make plays and play us through it,’’ Rhule said. “The quarterback is only as good as the people around him, but he does have to make those people better.

“We’ll just evaluate everything each week. We’re not at the end of the season. We’re not making some global statement for the future.’’