Cam Newton is back in Charlotte where he belongs, and how fitting is it that the first start in his second tenure with the Panthers comes Sunday against Washington and his old head coach?
With a wide-open race for the third wild card in the NFC, the winner of this game between familiar foes can put itself in playoff position.
Carolina came full circle by bringing Newton back last week. After a year of mediocre play from Teddy Bridgewater and less-than-inspired play from Sam Darnold, the Panthers are back where they started two years ago — minus several draft picks and tens of millions in bad contracts.
Newton made his 2021 debut last week against Arizona with a pair of goal-line scores. His black and blue digs may have been familiar, but the new playbook under offensive coordinator Joe Brady was not. However, as Newton put it after the game, he knew "two touchdowns worth."
The New England Patriots' decision to move on from Newton has proven to be correct with how rookie Mac Jones has acquitted himself, but the 2015 MVP didn't have to be unsigned until his former employer was ready to recognize its mistake. Notably not interested in Newton was Ron Rivera, his old coach.
Washington opted to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick in the offseason, and when the soon-to-be-39-year-old went down with a right hip injury, there wasn't much consideration. Instead, they went with a different former Panther, Taylor Heinicke, who has thrown nine interceptions in as many games this season and ranks 27th in QBR (42.4).
Sunday is Newton's chance to prove that he's not washed up in his 11th NFL season. Can he follow through against the coach who knows him best?
Washington (3-6) at Carolina (5-5)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 21 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Panthers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Is Cam Newton really back?
Newton only played nine snaps last week, largely in the red zone. Scoring twice is nice, but Newton's specialty is short yardage. Utilizing a full (or close to it) playbook and directing a team on long drives will be a different animal.
Don't blame Panthers fans for being excited that Superman is back, but this isn't the same Newton who took them to the Super Bowl. At least, he hasn't played like that in several years.
Carolina fans are well-versed in his shoulder and foot injuries at the end of his previous tenure, but he didn't last in New England because he wasn't effective. He averaged just 7.2 yards per pass attempt and 177.1 yards per game last season, although his 55 first downs and 12 touchdowns on the ground were the second-best totals of his career.
Perhaps the good news for Newton will be that he's surrounded by more talent than he's had at any point in his career. Christian McCaffrey is one of the most complete backs in the league, and DJ Moore and Robby Anderson are elusive with big-play potential. Compare that to the team he dragged to the Super Bowl (Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn Jr.) or last year's Patriots (Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd).
Of course, Newton will need to stay upright to be effective, and the Panthers have never put a particularly effective line around him. This season is no exception, especially with a torn ACL sidelining center Matt Paradis for the season. They rank just 22nd this season with a 7.3 percent adjusted sack rate. Which leads us to our next section...
2. Washington's pass rush without Chase Young
Washington entered the season with high expectations because of its pass rush with four first-rounders on the defensive line, but to say that the unit has been a disappointment would be an understatement. For one thing, this defense has dropped from sixth to tied for 20th in sacks.
And now Washington will have to go on without its stud, Young, who suffered a torn ACL in last week's win over the Buccaneers.
After he went down, the second half for Washington was a mixed bag. The defense did not generate a single sack for the second time this season but did pressure Tom Brady into throwing two picks.
With Montez Sweat also sidelined (fractured jaw), Carolina will be able to focus more on Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Washington's success will likely come down to whether their remaining pass rushers will make Newton uncomfortable in the pocket with an unfamiliar playbook or give enough him time to make plays happen.
3. Christian McCaffrey vs. Antonio Gibson
Before the season, many analysts picked Gibson to have a breakout season and be used in a McCaffrey-like mold. That hasn’t quite happened yet, although he has faced injury problems like McCaffrey.
Gibson, a former wide receiver at Memphis, hasn’t been used much more as a pass catcher. In fact, his per-game averages (56.2 rushing, 17.6 receiving) are eerily similar to his rookie production (56.8, 17.6) even though his touches have gone up. Some of that has to do with the shin injury he's been battling the last few weeks.
Expect to see more production on the ground this week from Gibson, as the Panthers’ No. 1-ranked pass defense also applies against running backs too. They've held opposing backs to a league-low 24.4 receiving yards per game this season.
McCaffrey, on the other hand, may have to lean on his pass-catching strength more this season, since Washington ranks sixth against the run but 30th against the pass. Given Newton's familiarity with him, it wouldn't be a surprise to see McCaffrey top 20 touches for the fourth time in the six games he's played.
Expectations are probably too high for Newton in his first start back with the Panthers, although Washington is an eminently beatable opponent, even after topping Tampa Bay. Given how beat up Carolina’s offensive line is, Washington will have a chance to slow Newton down, but the narrow edge goes to the home team in this game.