Column: Should Washington have signed Cam Newton?

FILE — In this Oct. 30, 2016, file photo, Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton (1) and head coach Ron Rivera stand on the sideline before an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone, File)

Boy, it was ugly for Washington on Sunday in Cleveland.

Five turnovers led to 24 Browns points in a game Washington lost by 14. Dwayne Haskins was guilty of four of them, and he should be indefinitely buying Isaiah Wright drinks for ensuring there wasn’t a fifth.

Performances like that can get a quarterback benched, like what happened to Mitchell Trubisky (more on him later). But Washington coach Ron Rivera shot down any talk of that regarding Haskins. Rivera said after the game Sunday he’s sticking with his young quarterback, just like he did with Cam Newton nearly a decade ago in Carolina.

But Monday, he made it clear Haskins let the team down.

“There were a lot of guys that gave their heart, put their heart on the field and, truthfully, they deserve better,” Rivera said. “Guys played hard … you have to say at some point [enough is enough with Haskins] and I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”

It’s funny Rivera brought Newton up, because right now, it looks like Washington would have been best served by bringing him to the nation’s capital.

I know the team is rebuilding. I know this is supposed to be a youth movement. I know Rivera flirted with the idea of reuniting with Newton but is on record as saying he’s willing to take his lumps with Haskins.

But there was a path to both winning now and building for the future. The coronavirus pandemic limited Newton’s ability to take a proper physical with another team after he was released in the offseason. But nobody knows him as well as Rivera, who coached him his entire career in Carolina, or Ryan Vermillion, Washington’s head athletic trainer, who had that job in Carolina most of the last two decades.

During an offseason of unprecedented uncertainty, Cam in D.C. would have been as known a quantity as you can get.

Before you point out to me the salary cap impact, Washington is more than $23 million under the cap, and the Patriots signed Newton to a one-year deal that maxes out at $7.5 million only if he reaches a bunch of incentives.

So, even with Alex Smith’s $21.4 million cap hit, this would have been affordable. And with an expanded practice squad this year, it would have been easy to stash Kyle Allen as a fallback option.

Having Newton as the veteran caretaker for Haskins could have been a win for everyone. Washington gets an experienced quarterback to take the lumps and teach Haskins the ropes; Haskins gets an apprenticeship behind a former MVP with a decade of experience playing for Rivera, and Newton gets a year to prove he’s healthy and ready to reclaim his status among the game’s best QBs.

Newton’s 89.7 QB rating through three games this season leaves much to be desired, but he’s one of those quarterbacks whose impact is obvious on the field but not always in the box score. The cupboard of offensive weapons is just as bare in New England as it is in Washington, so it’s not a stretch to think he could at least be doing here what he’s done for the 2-1 Patriots.

Newton is a dual threat capable of creating something good for an offense when the play breaks down — which, as I said in the WTOP Huddle, is the exact type of quarterback who wins in today’s NFL.

Newton undoubtedly would have done enough to help Washington win in Cleveland at least, pushing the Burgundy and Gold to 2-1 in a division full of losers. Haskins has shown flashes in his 10 career starts, but his 76.0 QB rating begs the question: Can he be the type of quarterback that elevates the team around him?

“The truth of the matter is, how is he going to learn? Is he going to learn by taking the [scout] team snaps? No,” Rivera said Sunday. “The only way he’s going to learn, and the only way we’re going to truly find out where Dwayne is and what he can do for us, is to put him back on the football field and let him get exposed. That’s how he grows.”

True, but there was a way to bring Newton in without stunting Haskins’ growth. Based on his contract, Washington would still have two years to see what they have in Haskins — three years, if they pick up his fifth-year option — and give the team a chance to put more talent around him, especially along the offensive line.

Though there’s value in having Haskins develop chemistry with his young receivers, he can’t do that from his back; he’s been sacked 10 times, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL through three weeks.

Newton has taken half that many sacks, in part because he is significantly better at scrambling than Haskins, but also because he is more experienced, especially in this offense he played in as a Panther. Again, New England’s offensive personnel isn’t significantly better than Washington’s this season for a variety of reasons.

Haskins would probably be best served by sitting and learning for a year, and given recent history, there’s no shame in that for a first-round pick. Patrick Mahomes sat all but the last game of his rookie season. Lamar Jackson would have, too, were it not for an injury to Joe Flacco.

Even with limited starting experience, both were MVPs in their second seasons, but of course, they also play for elite franchises.

Even setting Washington’s organizational dysfunction aside, history suggests Haskins may never reach those lofty heights. He’s on a short and mostly undesirable list of quarterbacks selected in the first round of the NFL draft after only one year as a college starter: Haskins, Trubisky, Newton, Kyler Murray and Mark Sanchez.

Haskins is currently trending closest to Sanchez or Trubisky, who at least made the Pro Bowl in his second season in Chicago.

Newton is the only one on that list to make multiple Pro Bowls and win MVP, making him a perfect role model for Haskins (assuming fashion tips aren’t involved).

Even if Newton had a lights-out, MVP-caliber 2020 season for Washington and carried it from 3-13 dumpster fire to 13-3 Super Bowl contender, that’s an answer to the Haskins debate. Newton is 31 in an age when quarterbacks play into their 40s; even if years of wear and tear prevent that sort of longevity, he could conceivably have three to five more good years. That’s plenty of time to build around him if that’s what Rivera and the franchise decide.

I’m not necessarily advocating for Washington to move on from Haskins, but we recently saw Arizona spend a first-round pick on a quarterback and quickly pivot to a different plan that looks like the right one. Though their fortunes are intertwined, what’s best for Haskins isn’t necessarily what’s best for Washington, and there are far worse fates for underwhelming first-round QBs than being a backup for Newton.

But that ship has sailed. Newton is reinvigorated; New England hasn’t fallen apart post-Tom Brady, and spoiled Patriots fans are stoked to have a more aesthetically pleasing form of winning.

Washington fans should remember: A former MVP with direct experience playing for the man tasked with the Football Team’s culture change was available for months on the cheap — a beautiful gift from the football gods. And Washington said, “Nah, I’m good,” simply because the toxic owner’s previous regime spent a first-round pick on Haskins.

We’ll find out how good they really are soon enough.

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