Quarterback to the future? Cam Newton and Jameis Winston must prove they are still right for the job
Prior to the 2019 NFL season, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston appeared in contrasting situations with their respective teams.
The unquestionable starter in Carolina, Newton and the Panthers had lofty expectations. In Tampa Bay, meanwhile, the Buccaneers had placed Winston on notice. By taking up his fifth-year option rather than signing him to a long-term deal, the message was clear - prove you deserve to get paid.
Both quarterbacks were selected with the first overall pick in their respective drafts by teams hoping they would be able to fulfil their obvious potential and blossom after college careers that included winning the Heisman Trophy.
But, as William Shakespeare once wrote, the course of true love never did run smooth.
Heading into a Week 6 meeting between the teams in London, the Bucs and Winston were still trying to work things out in their off-again, on-again relationship.
As for Newton, he had not even made the plane trip over, his seemingly rock-solid alliance with the Panthers suddenly becoming complicated by a foot injury. Carolina had appeared tied to the 30-year-old for the long run, having fallen head over heels from their early days together. If there were any doubters after his selection in 2011, they were silenced when he set record for passing yards for a rookie on his NFL debut – then surpassed that number a week later.
Yet familiarity breeds contempt and, with the face of the franchise in the background, the Panthers have had their heads turned by the new guy, Kyle Allen.
Newton was given a new five-year deal in June 2015, just before an MVP season that climaxed with a trip to Super Bowl 50. He threw a career-high 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more as he led his team to a 15-1 record, though they came up short against the Denver Broncos.
And that's the tea from London pic.twitter.com/qUncBNshg7— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 13, 2019
Four years after Newton entered the league, the Bucs selected Winston hoping he would end their merry-go-round at a key position.
Their pact did not quite have the same initial spark from the outset, the former Florida State star throwing 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions as a rookie – numbers that hinted at obvious promise as a passer, yet also highlighted a turnover issue that has been his Achilles heal in the pros.
He provided a microcosm of his career at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday, starting both halves by tossing an interception, while there was a crucial fumble to kill an opportunity to add further points before the end of the second quarter when he held onto the ball for too long. There were also occasional flashes of his quality, including a deep bomb to Mike Evans that the receiver just failed to reel in.
The unpredictable Winston is still likely to get paid when he signs his next deal - it just may not be forthcoming from his current employers.
If a divorce between the Bucs and Winston happens, they can cite irreconcilable differences. He is by no means the only issue for this Tampa Bay team, but it may well be best for all parties to go in different directions and start afresh.
"I'm not looking to the future. I'm not looking to the past," Winston said after committing six turnovers in a 37-26 defeat, before adding: "Today was not a good day, but there will be better days."
These bad days happen too often, though. Bruce Arians - Winston's third head coach in the NFL - told the media he never thought of benching his starter despite his struggles against Carolina, though admitted the 25-year-old "has a habit of trying to be Superman".
Speaking of Superman, Newton - who celebrates touchdowns by pretending to rip open his shirt, just like the superhero - will have to wait and see what happens next. He was clearly not right through the first two weeks of this season, failing to throw a single touchdown pass and recording just five rushing attempts.
The Panthers had lost eight on the spin with him out on the field, stemming back to a second-half collapse in the previous season that cost them a playoff spot. Now, they are on a four-game winning streak and eyeing a return to the postseason.
Allen was steady but unspectacular in the English capital, throwing for 227 yards and two scores. Still, he has done far more than just be an adequate stand-in when called upon. It is a small sample size, admittedly, but this stretch of games has raised the idea he should keep the job on a full-time basis.
Head coach Ron Rivera diplomatically responded to questions over a potential quarterback controversy that seems to be brewing: "As far as I'm concerned, we're just not going to deal with the question until it's time. When the time comes, I will address it. Our quarterback right now who has been playing for us is Kyle."
Having not made the trip, Newton will have watched on with interest from afar.
As for Winston, he may have wished he had stayed at home. It will be fascinating to see just how much longer he resides in Tampa Bay, too.