The Carolina Panthers' season has seemed doomed since Cam Newton missed Week 3 with a Lisfranc injury. Without their former MVP quarterback, they seemed highly unlikely to return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus.
Then a strange thing happened. After an 0-2 start with Newton, the Panthers ripped off four straight wins behind near-perfect performances from backup Kyle Allen. Allen has already been named the Week 9 starter — head coach Ron Rivera said on Monday that Newton is still in the middle of his rehab — but we're rapidly approaching the awkward question of who should start if and when Newton is healthy enough to return.
However, Sunday's 51-13 loss to the 49ers just illustrated the truth that's been undergirding the entire season: A healthy Kyle Allen is better than a hobbled Cam Newton, but a healthy Newton has always been the Panthers' best option.
Ever since the Panthers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011, Carolina has gone where Newton has taken them. His combination of arm strength, mobility, and game-breaking athleticism allowed him to lead the Panthers on 17 game-winning drives since his rookie season and three Pro Bowls. Allen has proven to be capable but lacks the same ceiling, even as Newton's value has waned on the ground.
Through four starts, Allen threw seven touchdowns with no interceptions, although six fumbles and 10 sacks put a serious dent in his value. It's also worth noting that he played three of the worst pass defenses in the league — the Texans (28th), Cardinals (29th), and Buccaneers (31st) — plus a Jaguars defense that only jumped into the top half of pass defenses (13th) this past week.
Allen got his first true test against the top-ranked 49ers defense on Sunday, and they made him look, well, like an undrafted free agent. The 23-year-old was just 19-of-37 for 158 yards with his first three interceptions of the season plus seven sacks. His 28.9 passer rating was the fifth-worst of the season among any quarterback with at least 20 attempts.
Now that the honeymoon phase is over for the Panthers and their new starter, Allen can be appreciated for what he is: a capable backup who can fill in for some time to tread water. The Panthers are right to tell Newton to rest until he's completely healthy — he admitted to hiding the extent of his injury earlier this year — because injuries have kept him from his full potential, but that doesn’t take away what he can accomplish when at 100 percent.
It's hard to argue that Allen is a better quarterback than a healthy Newton, but there are extenuating circumstances. The Panthers could save $19.1 million next season by cutting or trading Newton, while Allen is set to make around the league minimum again. No contract is more valuable than a good quarterback on a cheap deal, since that allows a team to spend tens of millions of dollars elsewhere, but it's not yet clear that Allen is good enough to lead a team to the playoffs. Furthermore, a good quarterback on a fair-market deal is not a bad place to be either.
Instead of trying to move on from Newton, the Panthers would be better served by trading Allen. Considering the Patriots got an early second-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo — and likely would have gotten more had they not traded him during the season — the Panthers could get a pretty haul for the former No. 1 high school recruit. Sure, Newton has been hampered by injuries lately, but that historically hasn't been a problem, since he's never missed more than two games in a season before this season.
The Panthers may have found a diamond in the rough when Newton went down with his latest injury, but he’s the best player in franchise history for a reason. Even at 30, Newton can do things few at his position can, and the Panthers would be out over their skis to move on now.