April 8 (UPI) -- Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday the decision to release former NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton was difficult, but it was one the franchise felt was best "for our team to move forward."
Rhule, who is entering his first season as coach of the Panthers, expressed appreciation for Newton's contributions to the organization since he was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft out of Auburn.
The former Baylor coach then told reporters the team's decision to part ways with Newton had less to do with the quarterback's health and more to do with free-agent acquisition Teddy Bridgewater being a better fit in new offensive coordinator Joe Brady's system.
Newton, who missed 14 games last season, underwent foot surgery in December and was medically cleared last month.
"I think at the end of the day, I really enjoyed getting to know Cam, and seeing the work he was putting in coming back from the injury," Rhule said. "I mean, there's certainly no doubt he was grinding his way back. I just think that we felt that in the end, it was the best thing for our team to move forward. And I have no doubt that he'll play well.
"He is a great quarterback, and we have all seen the things that he has done. I just think as we move forward, we thought this was the right time for us. We saw the opportunity to get Teddy and really felt like he was the right fit for us. We went ahead and made that call, not an easy call, but one we thought was the best one moving forward."
The Panthers reached an agreement with Bridgewater on a three-year, $63 million contract on March 17. That same day, the team announced Newton received permission to seek a trade.
Newton, 30, then disputed the notion, writing on social media that the team "forced me into this." The 2015 NFL MVP, who had one year remaining on his deal with the Panthers, hasn't signed with another team since his release March 24.
Newton, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 29,041 yards, 182 touchdowns and 108 interceptions in 125 career games in Carolina.
Bridgewater, who spent the past two seasons as a backup with the New Orleans Saints, was a Pro Bowler with the Minnesota Vikings in 2015. In 44 career games with the Vikings and Saints, he has completed 65.2 percent of his throws for 7,652 yards, 38 touchdowns and 25 picks.