CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has no doubts Cam Newton is a franchise quarterback, and he emphatically said so Tuesday -- and this time without any hesitation.
"Yes," Gettleman said definitively, then with a smile added, "No seven-second pause, was there?"
Gettleman created a little controversy during training camp when he was asked the same question but paused to think before throwing his weight behind Newton. On Tuesday, Gettleman made it clear that Newton -- and coach Ron Rivera -- figure into the team's long term plans.
Back in August, Gettleman said Newton had to prove he could win.
The former Heisman Trophy winner did just that this season, leading the Panthers to the NFC South championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs before being bounced from the postseason by the San Francisco 49ers.
Gettleman said Newton proved to him that he is a franchise quarterback.
"He proved it this year," the GM said. "He flat proved it."
Carolina's big season couldn't have come at a better time for Rivera, who was on the hot seat after a 1-3 start.
Rivera is entering the final year of his contract, so it's likely the team will look to extend his deal this offseason.
"I have the ultimate faith in Ron," Gettleman said. "... We were 12-4, NFC South champs. I think I'm pretty pleased" with his effort.
Gettleman wouldn't discuss the contract situation for Newton or Rivera.
With Newton's third NFL season complete, the Panthers can now sign him to a long-term contract extension.
His contract is set to expire after the 2014 season, but the Panthers can exercise an option for a fifth year in 2015 by agreeing to pay the two-time Pro Bowler an average salary equal to that of the top 10 highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. The Panthers have until May 3 to make that decision.
Rivera has previously said Newton has shown "substantial progress" this season, throwing for 3,379 yards and a career-high 24 touchdowns while leading the Panthers to a 12-5 record. He also ran for 585 yards and six TDs.
Gettleman said the team's overall salary cap picture will factor into what happens this offseason.
The Panthers have 21 soon-to-be unrestricted free agents on their roster whose contracts expire in March.
Among those is defensive end Greg Hardy, who has developed into one of the league's top pass rushers with 26 sacks over the past two seasons, including 15 this year. Hardy, who was selected to the Pro Bowl, could command a salary in excess of $10 million per season.
Gettleman said the Panthers are still "cap challenged" one year after he inherited a team more than $16 million over the NFL salary cap.
"It's not going away yet. So we have a lot of decisions to make," Gettleman said, adding that it will be at least two years before the team is on solid footing with the salary cap.
Gettleman wouldn't discuss specific needs this offseason, saying his staff needs time to evaluate the entire roster.
However, it's expected the Panthers will look to add more weapons for Newton. Wide receiver Steve Smith turns 35 in May and Carolina's offense struggled down the stretch, averaging just 18.2 points over its final five games.
"You're asking me if I'd like to score 30 points a game -- who wouldn't? But again, it's a process," Gettleman said. "We came in a year ago and we were really challenged (under the salary cap). Rome wasn't built in a day. It just wasn't."
Gettleman said the challenge ahead is maintaining this year's success.
The Panthers have never been to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
"I have seen teams that have been struggling jump up and go 10-6 and 11-5, then drop right back down. I don't believe that will be us," Gettleman said.
The GM said he is excited about the future or the organization.
"I will say this: I would rather be where we are now than where we were a year ago," Gettleman said. "So is it sustainable? Yes it is. Am I making any predictions? No."
NOTES: The Panthers signed eight players to futures contracts, including wide receiver Brenton Bersin, quarterback Matt Blanchard, linebacker Ben Jacobs, guard Mike Jasper, tight end D.C Jefferson, tackle Andrew McDonald, cornerback De'Andre Presley and defensive end Craig Roh.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org