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Panthers to start Cam Newton, play Sam Darnold this week

Cam Newton, Sam Darnold

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have prepared to play two different quarterbacks in a game before.

This week, they're doing it with a different set of two.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday that Cam Newton would start Sunday's game against the Buccaneers "and have a major role," and that they'd also play Sam Darnold at some point this week.

That decision's carrying a lot of emotional and financial weight, but Rhule said mostly it's about coming up with a plan to help the team break a four-game losing streak.

Of course, you can't completely remove the concept that Newton's a free agent at the end of the season, and could be playing his final game at Bank of America Stadium. Or that Darnold's the only quarterback under contract for next season, so there's some interest in seeing what they can plan on for the future.

"My job, and our job here is to do what's right for the team and the franchise always," Rhule said. "To do what's best to win this game this Sunday, that's what we owe to those guys in the locker room. When you're not winning, you're trying different things to get yourself over the hump to win. So we'll do what's best in terms of the Carolina Panthers.

"That being said, these guys work really hard. They prepare at a high level. Try to put them in positions to be successful. If there's something they're not doing at a super-high level, then we work on it or new have someone else do it. We take all that into account. No decisions we make are easy or no-brainers. You have to do what's right; it's not always popular. Sometimes it's hard. But the way that you win, long-term, is to always do what's right for the Panthers.

"That'll be our litmus test for everything we do at every position, whether it's signing somebody or playing somebody, and I think our players understand and respect that."

It's certainly not an easy decision. Newton's a beloved franchise icon. He has more rushing touchdowns than any quarterback in NFL history, as well as more single games with a rushing and passing touchdown than any player in league history. He also has a combined passer rating of 46.0 over his last three games. As a runner, he's still one of the game's unique players, and he's still capable of moments of brilliance. As a passer, however, he hasn't been sharp lately.

Sam Darnold

Darnold's been out since going on injured reserve with a shoulder injury in Week 10.

During the early part of the season, he played efficiently and well. Then Christian McCaffrey got hurt, then the protection around him broke down, then receivers started dropping passes, and then he himself started making mistakes he hadn't made. He's thrown seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions this year.

The fact he's on the books for $18.9 million next year makes it incumbent on them to make the right decision about him for the future.

All of that makes this week, to put it simply, complicated.

"Obviously, Cam brings a unique skill set that not many do, in terms of running and throwing the football," Rhule said. "We had a (15)-play drive last game, that unfortunately didn't result in points. I want to see our guys play clean football. I want to see them continue to improve in the passing game. That's something that's affected us through the middle stretch of the season. Early on in the season, I thought we were an excellent passing team. I'd like to see us get back to that. I want to see our team win, and our quarterbacks move us down the field.

"Sam was 4-5 as a starter, had some excellent moments early. We all know he kind of hit a little bit of a rut there. He's had some time off. So when he has an opportunity to play, I'd certainly love to see him show what he can do. We brought him here to be the starter, see if he can play at that level again. I want to see Cam do the things Cam does at such a high level, move the ball down the field with his legs, with his arm. And if P.J. (P.J. Walker) gets in, want to see him do the same thing.

"Protecting the football, driving the football, winning third downs, the passing game, those are all areas we're working on."

— Rhule said that with veteran left tackle Cameron Erving (calf) limited in practice, rookie Brady Christensen took the first-team reps at that position.

He also said that wide receiver DJ Moore (hamstring), who didn't practice Wednesday, would "go all the way to Sunday" and be a game-time decision.

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was also on the injury report (limited, knee), but said afterward he didn't even realize he was on the report and was fine.

View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Buccaneers in the home finale on Sunday.

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