CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Coach Matt Rhule’s future with the Carolina Panthers beyond the 2021 season likely will be tied to how he handles the quarterback position.
Fix that, and he has a chance to turn around a franchise in the midst of its fourth straight losing season.
“That’s the most important position on the field,’’ Tepper said of quarterback a year ago when he fired general manager Marty Hurney with two games left in the season. “Unless you have that guy that for sure gets you to playoffs and Super Bowls, you have to keep reevaluating that because that’s the only thing that matters is Super Bowls.
“And until you have that guy, you’re evaluating, evaluating, evaluating every year.’’
So far, Rhule and his staff haven’t done a good job of evaluating quarterbacks -- or as ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky said: “Bad to really poor.’’
The Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater last year because he had experience with offensive coordinator Joe Brady from their time with the Saints. They gave up on Bridgewater after a 5-11 season, agreeing to pay $7 million of the quarterback’s 2021 salary in a trade with the Denver Broncos.
They gave up on Brady last month, firing the offensive coordinator less than two years into a three-year deal.
Carolina replaced Bridgewater with Sam Darnold, giving the New York Jets a second- and fourth-round draft pick for the third pick of the 2018 draft despite his 13-25 record with the Jets. They also picked up his fifth-year option, guaranteeing him $18.7 million in 2022.
After losing five of six starts, following a 3-0 beginning to the season, Darnold went on injured reserve and the Panthers brought back 2011 first-round pick Cam Newton with a one-year, $6 million deal.
With Newton now having gone 0-5 as the starter, the Panthers will turn back to Darnold as the starter against New Orleans in Week 17, if for no other reason than he’s the only quarterback under contract next season.
“It’s just been like, ‘What are you guys doing? Do you actually know what you’re doing?’ ’’ Orlovsky said.
Orlovsky doesn’t blame one person, reminding that the offensive line has been a mess, running back Christian McCaffrey has played 10 games the past two seasons due to injuries and the team never developed a reliable tight end.
But as Rhule says, when the team loses, it all falls back on him.
“It’s been poor, and I don’t think they have the answer moving forward,’’ Orlovsky said.
And Orlovsky likes Darnold, but admitted it would be “silly’’ for him to say the answer is on the roster.
“I don’t think you can go into the offseason with the guys they have,’’ he said.
So what are the options? Let’s take a look:
Trade for Russell Wilson
Carolina wasn’t among the four teams reported earlier this year that Wilson, 33, would consider if the Seattle Seahawks could work out a deal. But Carolina general manager Scott Fitterer came from Seattle and was the director of college scouting in 2012 when the Seahawks selected Wilson in the third round.
Fitterer can promise Wilson a solid receiving corps in DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, and McCaffrey, who when healthy is one of the best running backs in the NFL. He can promise to rebuild the offensive line through free agency and the draft.
With a projected $29 million in cap space for 2022, Fitterer has wiggle room to work in Wilson’s $37 million cap figure or spread that figure out with an extension. He may have to give up a first-round pick in 2022 or 2023 to get him, but that would at least solidify the biggest question mark on the roster.
Of course, this probably is a dream scenario.
Reenter the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes
The Panthers were interested in Watson, the Texans quarterback, last year before legal problems (22 active lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior) and a high price tag (at least three first-round draft picks) forced them to turn their focus to Matthew Stafford and then Darnold after Detroit traded Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams.
Unless the legal issues disappear and the price drops, Watson likely again won’t be an option unless the Panthers get desperate.
Sign a quarterback in free agency
This would be a roll of the dice worse than Bridgewater, Darnold and Newton since the 2022 free-agent quarterback class doesn't offer much when it comes to a long-term solution.
Trade Darnold, draft a QB to groom behind Newton
First, what team would want Darnold unless the Panthers agree to pay most of his 2022 salary the way they did Bridgewater’s this season? Unless Darnold shows improvement over the final two games, the market would be zilch. And if he showed that kind of improvement, the Panthers likely wouldn’t trade him.
Then there’s the draft. With a top-10 pick the Panthers likely would have to reach on what currently is considered an average quarterback class. Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett is at the top of the list for now, and Rhule once offered him a scholarship at Temple, but he’d likely be a project.
The rest of the top quarterbacks -- Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, Nevada’s Carson Strong, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Liberty’s Malik Willis -- all would be reaches unless the Panthers opted to trade back to replace the draft picks lost in the trade for Darnold.
This, as Orlovsky noted, would be “silly’’ to suggest. However, it could be the best option if you draft a quarterback in the later rounds, looking for the next Tom Brady (sixth-rounder, 2000).
It also could be a recipe for coaching change.