Columns & Blogs

While Cam Newton sits, can Panthers QB Kyle Allen capture lightning in a bottle again?


If you’re like me, you didn’t hear that word much growing up. Now it’s everywhere, as people try to figure out how to avoid depleting the Earth’s natural resources.

I’ll use it in a different way today, though: This is the week where Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen needs to show his sustainability.

I’m not saying he can’t do it. I’m not saying he won’t do it. But Allen’s second start of the season, in a road game at Houston at 1 p.m. Sunday, will be a more difficult challenge than his first.

The city of Charlotte and the legion of Panthers fans spread out through the Carolinas and beyond has been abuzz this week after Allen threw four touchdown passes and directed a wonderfully efficient offense in a 38-20 win over Arizona. It was the sort of performance you dream of as a backup quarterback. Allen gets a chance to repeat it Sunday as Cam Newton is once again out with a left foot injury -- one which he shouldn’t have been playing on to begin with, as he said in his video blog Friday.

But can Allen sustain that sort of brilliance? Can he capture lightning in a bottle for two straight weeks? In the past, he hasn’t. If Allen played every game in college as well as he did against Arizona — and also against New Orleans last December — you and I know he would have been a first-round pick in 2018 instead of going undrafted.

How did this guy — with those smarts and that big arm — not get picked at all? Because he was inconsistent. After being widely considered the top high school quarterback in the country, Allen lost a full-time starting job in college twice — once at Texas A&M and then again at Houston.

Each case was different, but it’s fair to say that sustainability was a problem. At Texas A&M, Allen and fellow future NFL quarterback Kyler Murray, this year’s top overall draft pick, alternated the job. Both eventually grew tired of the situation and transferred — Allen first, and then Murray.

At Houston, after sitting out a year due to transfer rules, Allen completed 31 of 33 passes in a win over Rice in his second game ever for the school. But after three starts, he had also thrown four interceptions and lost two fumbles. He got benched in the fourth game for a guy named Kyle Postma, who was more of a running quarterback, and Allen hardly ever saw the field again for the Cougars.

That was undoubtedly a mistake by Houston’s coaching staff: Allen was an NFL talent, and he languished on the bench for a team in a weak conference that ended up 7-5. But the fact remains that in college, Allen was once a starter on two separate occasions — and then he wasn’t. He hasn’t always looked like he did Sunday as a pro, either, or the Panthers wouldn’t have temporarily cut him from the practice squad in 2018 (they eventually realized the error of their ways).

With the 2019 Panthers, Allen’s situation is different. Panthers coach Ron Rivera has said publicly that Cam Newton will inherit his old starting job when he’s ready to play again. That may be as many as six weeks, Newton said in his video blog, but this isn’t supposed to be a Wally Pipp situation.

Allen has a limited number of games to keep proving his worth. If he continues to amaze, though, there will undoubtedly be at least some consideration given to releasing Newton next spring and going with Allen full-time. (Newton has a reported salary-cap hit of $23.2 million this season, no matter how much or little he plays; Allen’s is about $500,000).

Newton also put out a statement on social media this week supporting Allen — while also reminding people he’s only hurt, not deceased.

“I really appreciate the love, support and well wishes,” Newton wrote in his signature font. “But ummmm, I’m hurt, not dead!! And FYI I will support the Panthers and Kyle Allen the best I know how while I’m out!!”

How long that will be is unclear. But in the meantime, Allen must prove his sustainability.

Other notes of interest about the Panthers-Texans game:

If you’re struggling trying to remember much of a history between Carolina and Houston, there’s no wonder. While the Panthers did play one of their most important games ever in Houston — losing the 38th Super Bowl to New England — they have only played the Texans four times. That’s the fewest number of times the Panthers have played any team in the NFL; the series is tied 2-2.

The Panthers better watch for the deep ball Sunday. Houston quarterback, and former Clemson star, Deshaun Watson has a lot of guys who can go catch it. Wide receiver Kenny Stills is tied for the NFL lead for receptions of 30 or more yards with four, and the Texans have nine 30-plus receptions as a team. Only Kansas City has more.

Has anyone else noticed that Allen looks a lot like former Panther quarterback Jimmy Clausen? Allen plays better, though. While Allen had four touchdown passes in one game against Arizona, Clausen had only three TD passes (to go along with nine interceptions) all year when he was the primary starter in 2010 for one of the worst Carolina teams ever.

Prediction time. My record picking Carolina games improved to 2-1 last week when I chose the Panthers to beat Arizona. This week I don’t like Carolina’s chances against a more experienced quarterback in Watson, who isn’t going to take eight sacks and throw two interceptions like Murray did.

My pick: Houston 30, Carolina 24.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.