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No fairytale ending for Cam Newton and Panthers

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) reacts after failing to convert a field goal in the second half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton's struggles have left Matt Rhule looking for answers at quarterback.

Rhule said Monday that he "can't speculate" on who'll be the team's starting quarterback this Sunday when the Panthers host Tampa Bay.

The Panthers' second-year head coach said he'll "continue working" with Newton, but added that he wants to see where Sam Darnold's shoulder is on Wednesday when the team returns to practice. Darnold remains on injured reserve, but stepped up his throwing last week.

"We will find out about Sam and his health. I'm not going to look into the future, no hypotheticals," Rhule said of Darnold, who went on IR on Nov. 10 with an incomplete fracture of his shoulder blade. "If Sam is healthy we will practice him and see where he's kind of at. I think it is a good opportunity to shake some the rust off and see where he's at."

Darnold is 4-5 as the team's starter, while Newton is 0-4.

Newton threw for a touchdown and ran for another score in a 31-14 loss to Buffalo on Sunday, but he also tossed another interception and his poor decision-making and inability to consistently complete passes down the field continue to be an issue for the Panthers (5-9).

Any hopes of a fairytale ending where the 2015 league MVP would help his former team turn things around have vanished. Carolina has lost nine of its past 11 games.

Rhule called Newton the "ultimate competitor" on Monday, and praised him for his hard work.

But that came one day after he criticized the team's lack of a downfield passing game and Newton's decision-making. The Panthers only took one shot down the field, but Newton couldn't complete the ball to an open D.J. Moore.

"Certainly right now, our passing down the field is not one of our strengths," Rhule said. "Holding onto the football in kind of those duress situations is not really one of our strengths."

Newton was sacked four times, losing 32 yards.

Rhule also questioned Newton's decision to throw to wide receiver Robby Anderson on a key fourth-and-1 zone-read play instead of running the ball as was designed.

"It shouldn't be thrown. It's a zone read. There's a bubble on there in case an unblocked blitzer comes," Rhule said. "The MIKE (linebacker), we had that guy blocked so that's just an error by the quarterback. It should be a handoff."

Newton has now lost 12 straight starts for Carolina going back to 2018 and it's become clear that he, like Teddy Bridgewater and Darnold before him, is not the answer at quarterback. P.J. Walker, who is 2-0 as an NFL starter, doesn't appear to have Rhule's support either as a short-term or long-term starter.

What's working

Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos took advantage of some increased playing time against the Bills and had 2-1/2 sacks of Josh Allen. The 2020 second-round pick is expected to see an increased role moving forward.

What needs help

Pretty much everything, but Carolina's downfield passing has been virtually non-existent. Carolina's only pass play of longer than 20 yards came when Newton found running back Ameer Abdullah underneath for a 23-yard catch-and-run touchdown. The Panthers are getting almost nothing down the field. Carolina ran for 151 yards on Sunday, but Rhule said, "at the end of the day I think it really just comes down to our ability to throw the ball and create some explosive plays."

Injured

Carolina will bring in some kickers for a tryout this week after Zane Gonzalez injured his quadriceps prior to kickoff Sunday and was unable to play. The Panthers were left without a kicker, so they didn't try a field goal or extra point. Wide receiver Brandon Zylstra handled kickoffs after the team held "tryouts" before the game. The Panthers finished 1 of 4 on fourth down conversions and 1 of 2 on 2-point conversions.

Next steps

Things aren't going to get any easier down the stretch for the Panthers, who have lost nine of their past 11 games and are simply playing out the schedule. They'll host a highly motivated Tom Brady on Sunday after the Buccaneers were blanked 9-0 on Sunday by the New Orleans Saints. Carolina then finishes on the road at New Orleans and Tampa Bay.

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