Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule praises Cam Newton, but leaves door open for Sam Darnold to regain starting QB job

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule didn't commit Monday to whether Cam Newton or Sam Darnold will be his starting quarterback for Sunday's game against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"We'll continue to coach Cam and keep building off all the good things he's doing," Rhule said after the team suffered its fourth straight loss and ninth in 11 games on Sunday at Buffalo. "We'll find out about Sam today and his health. I'm not going to look into the future. No hypotheticals.

"If Sam is healthy, we'll practice him and see kind of where he's at. It's a good opportunity to shake some of the rust off him and see where he's at in the process. I can't speculate in terms of who will be the full-time guy this week until I have more information."

Newton, 32, is 0-4 as the starter this season and has lost 12 straight with the Panthers (5-9) dating back to 2018. Darnold was meeting with doctors on Monday to see if he'll be given full clearance to resume practicing after missing five games with a shoulder injury.

He was cleared to return to practice last week, and Rhule said the 24-year-old's throwing did not appear to be compromised in his limited role.

Regardless of who starts, Rhule made it clear he has appreciated "every second" he's had with Newton, who re-signed with Carolina last month after Darnold was injured.

"I have absolutely respected and appreciated and loved every second that Cam's been here," Rhule said. "He works as hard as someone can work. And all he ever says to me is, 'Hey, keep coaching me.' He wants accountability. He wants to help the team win."

The compliments came less than 24 hours after a 31-14 loss at Buffalo in which Rhule criticized Newton for throwing an incompletion to Robby Anderson on fourth-and-1 from midfield in the first quarter of a then-scoreless game.

"It's a zone-read play," Rhule said. "It shouldn't be thrown. There's a bubble [route] in there in case an unblocked blitzer comes. To my point, we had that guy blocked.

"That's just an error by the quarterback. It should be handoff, first down, or he pulls the ball. Only one guy over there. Just poor execution."

After watching film, Rhule could see why Newton made the decision to throw instead of run on a play that has resulted in "three or four" touchdowns since Newton returned.

But he remained adamant Newton shouldn't have passed.

"If that guy is protected, we don't need to throw it off that blitzer," he said. "It's an unfortunate play. It's just one play in the game. I don't think it lost the game. It certainly didn't help. All of us would like to have that play back."

Rhule was just as adamant about his respect for Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP who led Carolina to the Super Bowl under former coach Ron Rivera, then was released a few months after Rhule was hired in 2020.

He mentioned that the two talk for hours every week on Tuesday.

"I've learned so much from him," he said. "We [just] haven't been able to get a win for him while he's here. I thought he played well enough in the Washington game for us to win. But I do know that Cam lays it on the line every time he goes out there. I do know that Cam prepares at a high level every week."

Mistakes have plagued Newton's performance the past three games. He has four interceptions and a lost fumble, including an interception at Buffalo.

"For everything people might think they know about Cam Newton, you can learn a lot about who he is as a person, as a man, as a competitor these last four games," Rhule said. "There hasn't been one moment, one moment, where he's pointing a finger at somebody else. There hasn't been one moment where he doesn't say to me, 'Hey coach ... get after me.'"

If Newton is not re-signed after the season, Sunday could be his last chance to play in a Carolina uniform at Bank of America Stadium, where from 2011 to 2019 he became the team's all-time winningest quarterback (68-55-1) and established most of the team records for quarterbacks.

Carolina's final two games are at New Orleans and Tampa Bay.

Darnold, who has lost four of his last five starts after beginning the season 3-0, is Carolina's only quarterback under contract next season because the Panthers picked up his fifth-year option after acquiring him in a trade with the New York Jets.

So Rhule has the future to consider when deciding who starts on Sunday.

But Rhule made it clear he appreciates all that Newton did before he returned and has done since returning. He also noted, "I do what's best for the team each and every week."

"0-and-4 or whatever, I'm just worried about this week," Rhule added. "I'd love for us to get a win against a great Buccaneers team this week. We'll go back to the process of trying to come up with a plan and get the guys to execute the plan."