CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule said Sam Darnold “will play” in Sunday’s home finale against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Cam Newton will remain the starting quarterback this week.
Darnold on Wednesday was cleared by doctors for contact after missing the past five games with a shoulder injury. Rhule said Newton will have a “major role” in the game plan, but he wants to get a look at Darnold to see if he can get back to the level he was during a 3-0 start.
“Sam was 4-5 as a starter,” Rhule said. “He had some excellent moments early. He hit kind of a rut there. He’s had some time off, so when he has an opportunity to play I’d certainly like to see him show what he can do.
“We brought him here to be a starter. We want to see if he can play at that level again.”
Rhule wouldn’t expand on what Darnold’s role will be or how much he will play. He added that Darnold being the only quarterback under contract for next season was not a factor in deciding to bring him back with three games left in the season and playoff hopes on life support.
The Panthers are 5-9 with four straight losses with Newton as the starter. They have less than a 1% chance of making the NFC playoffs as a wild-card team.
Newton, 32, is not under contract for next season after rejoining the team last month when Darnold, 24, went on injured reserve. If not re-signed, this would be his last chance to play at Bank of America Stadium for the team that made him the top pick of the 2011 draft.
“My job and our job here is to do what is right for the team, do what’s best to win this Sunday,” Rhule said. “We owe that to the guys in the locker room. We’ll do what’s best in terms of the Carolina Panthers.
“No decisions that we make are easy or no brainers. You have to do what’s right. It’s not always popular. But the way you win long-term is to always do what’s right for the Panthers.”
Rhule added he and Newton are “completely good” after discussing the fourth-and-1 play the coach was critical of on Sunday. Rhule said shortly after the 31-14 loss at Buffalo that Newton should not have checked out of the second-quarter zone-read play that resulted in an incompletion.
He called it an “error by the quarterback.”
Rhule on Wednesday said he took responsibility for the play in front of the team. He didn’t consider what he said after the game being overly critical of Newton, even though some on social media interpreted it that way.
“I listen to [Tampa Bay] coach Bruce Arians and some of those guys are highly critical,” said Rhule, referring to the times Arians has called out Tom Brady. “I was trying to answer a question about a play, not necessarily a person.
“I believe everything that happens in football is my responsibility.”
Rhule said he has complete respect for Newton, who spent the 2020 season at New England after being released by Carolina shortly after Rhule was hired.
“What I love about Cam Newton is he always asks me to coach him hard,” Rhule said. “We’ve had … kind of a rough year in terms of turning the ball over and not having the production we want.
“One play happened. I gave an answer. Maybe you guys or some people don’t like it.”
Turnovers at quarterback have played a major role in Carolina losing nine of its past 11 games to fall out of serious playoff contention. Newton has five turnovers — four interceptions and a lost fumble — the past three games.
Darnold had 10 of his 11 interceptions in his past six starts, including three in his last start against New England on Nov. 7.
Rhule said the goal with Newton and Darnold on Sunday is to play mistake-free and make good decisions. He has no concerns about Darnold’s physical conditioning after being out for so long.
“I want to see our guys play clean football,” Rhule said. “I want to see them continue to improve in the passing game. That’s something that has affected us throughout the middle stretch of this season.
“Early on in the season I thought we were an excellent passing team. I’d like to see us get back to that.”