Panthers need to take Cam Newton

At Auburn, Cam Newton proved to be a dangerous athlete who could throw and run. Paul Abell/US Presswire

There was a time when you could read the Carolina Panthers like a book. The title was “Third and Long: A Draw Play to Nick Goings.’’

Take any situation -- on or off the field -- and you could ask yourself, “What would Jerry Richardson, John Fox and Marty Hurney do?’’ The answer was obvious: the most conservative thing possible. That’s why what I’m about to say still shocks me.

The Panthers need to use the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.

There, I said it, even though I was thinking just the opposite only a few weeks ago. What's changed?

Well, Fox is gone as coach, and Ron Rivera is in his place. That’s significant. But it’s about more than that. The world has changed, and I think the Panthers finally have realized it.

I’m not saying the Panthers absolutely will take Newton -- they haven’t made any final decision. I’m just saying they should take Newton. I’m also sensing that’s a very real possibility because the Panthers have been doing heavy homework on Newton, pretty much since the moment Andrew Luck said he wasn’t entering the draft, and all indications are they’ll continue to do their homework on Newton right up until draft time.

That’s exactly what they should be doing. For too long (at least Fox's nine seasons as coach), the thinking in Carolina was you don’t draft quarterbacks early because they take too long to develop and you go out and win with defense, a ball-control offense and a game manager at quarterback. It worked at times, but it also ended up being the reason Fox is gone.

At the same time that Fox was refusing to embrace last year’s youth movement or adjust in any way, I believe Hurney and Richardson took off the blinders. When they looked around, they realized they’re in a league driven by quarterbacks.

We’re talking quarterbacks who can throw and quarterbacks who can run. Green Bay won a Super Bowl with a mobile quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Tampa Bay won 10 games last season with Josh Freeman, who can throw and run. Rules have changed, and they’ve changed in favor of quarterbacks and offenses in general. It's way past time for the Panthers to change, and that's why they're playing catch-up now.

New Orleans has Drew Brees and Atlanta has Matt Ryan. You do the math, but my quick calculations say three out of four NFC South teams have a franchise quarterback who will be around for the foreseeable future.

That’s why the Panthers need to take Newton. He is the only guy in this year’s draft with a chance to be a true franchise quarterback. The No. 1 pick is a gift designed to help the league’s worst team get better, and at least in theory, you have to take your shot when it’s there because you shouldn't be sitting at No. 1 repeatedly.

Newton’s sitting right in front of the Panthers, and they need to just go ahead and grab him. Yeah, I know there are questions about Newton’s background and character, and there are even questions about his ability to adjust to an NFL offense because he had such a short college career.

But do you really think the Panthers still would be in the Newton mix if they viewed Newton’s background as a bright red flag? Yes, a big part of this column is about how the Panthers are changing right in front of us, but one thing hasn’t changed. That’s Richardson’s position on character.

He has been a stickler on that subject ever since the Rae Carruth saga. Richardson has his hands full with the league’s labor negotiations, but trust me, the man has seen and heard everything Hurney and his staff have gathered on Newton. To date, Richardson hasn’t come out and told his general manager to scratch Newton off the list.

We’re less than a month away from the draft, and the Panthers are still going down the Newton road. It’s one of several scenarios -- Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, several defensive linemen, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and Georgia receiver A.J. Green -- still in the mix.

The old Panthers automatically would have gone with a defensive lineman because the general rule of thumb is you don’t take a cornerback or receiver at No. 1 and the quarterbacks would not even have been a consideration.

But Newton and Gabbert are still very much in consideration, and that says a lot. Even if you take the next step and narrow it down to the two quarterbacks, the old Carolina rule of thumb would have dictated that the Panthers go with Gabbert. He doesn’t have the background questions.

He also doesn’t have the upside Newton does. At best, Gabbert’s going to turn out to be something like Mark Sanchez, a solid quarterback but not a guy who is going to carry you to the Super Bowl on his own. Believe it or not, the powers that are still with the Panthers think Jimmy Clausen, a second-round pick last year, could turn out to be something comparable to Sanchez.

Newton can be more than that. At best, Newton’s going to be Freeman or Ben Roethlisberger or maybe even something better than we’ve ever seen.

And don’t give me that old line about how missing on a quarterback will set back your franchise for five years. And I sure don’t want to hear that you’re three years away from winning when you draft a quarterback at the top of the draft.

The Bucs started winning in Freeman’s first full season as a starter, and the rest of the roster wasn’t all that talented. The Falcons, who were about as low as a team can be in 2007, drafted Ryan, played him right away and immediately started winning in 2008.

Speaking of Ryan, he is the prototype quarterback in Hurney’s eyes. When Ryan was coming out in that draft, Hurney was saying he hadn’t seen a more surefire prospect in years, maybe ever. He had studied Ryan and had some strong inside knowledge because Hurney’s nephew was the equipment manager at Boston College and a close friend of the quarterback. Hurney had a pretty similar view of Luck right up until the moment he said he was staying at Stanford.

When you’re out of Luck, there’s only one thing left to do in this brave new world in which the Panthers are living.

You take a chance. You aim straight for the sky instead of worrying about the floor collapsing.

You take Newton.