Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the New England Patriots, Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Stephan Savoia
September 05, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Panthers are hoping to get off to a fast start this season for a change - with or without Cam Newton.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Friday the team's Pro Bowl quarterback threw passes and took all of his anticipated reps at practice with the first team, raising some hope that he might play Sunday at Tampa Bay.

Rivera said Newton ''took the next step'' in his recovery from fractured ribs.

However, Rivera reiterated he won't make a decision on Newton until Sunday, possibly before the team arrives at the stadium.

''He looked pretty good,'' Rivera said. ''It was a good sign. But we will see how he feels. He will get treatment (Saturday) morning and meet with trainers.''

Newton is listed as questionable on the team's injury report.

The Panthers have lost five straight season openers and are 6-13 overall entering their 20th season. They lost their season opener at Tampa Bay 16-10 two years ago and will look to avoid a similar lackluster performance on Sunday.

Whether Newton is part of Carolina's game plan remains to be seen.

He's never missed a start in three seasons for Carolina. If he does play, he'll wear a thick flak jacket to protect the ribs he busted in an Aug. 22 preseason game at New England.

Rivera said he will listen to input from Newton, the trainers, his assistant coaches and even general manager Dave Gettleman before making a decision on whether Newton starts.

''I have to listen to what's going and how everybody feels,'' Rivera said. ''The truth of the matter is I have to make a decision that is ultimately in the best interest of his health and in the best interest of the football team. Our concern is his health, first and foremost.''

Rivera was more certainly optimistic than on Thursday when he talked about not wanting to risk putting Newton on the field if he couldn't protect himself.

Newton didn't speak to reporters on Friday.

Derek Anderson would start if Newton is still too sore to play.

Anderson has started 43 games during his nine-year NFL career, but none since 2010. He's only thrown four passes in the past three seasons with the Panthers.

Asked if he's ready to play, Anderson replied ''Always.''

''I thought I had a good week of preparation and we will finish it tomorrow and see what happens,'' Anderson said.

Anderson said the game plan will be exactly the same regardless of who starts.

Carolina has had some real duds in its three season opening losses under Rivera. That has led to some poor starts for the season with the Panthers going 1-5 in 2011, 1-6 in 2012 and 1-3 last year.

Unlike the first two seasons, the Panthers were able to pull out of that early funk in 2013 and win 11 of their final 12 games to finish 12-4 and win the NFC South championship.

But they'd prefer not to have to take that route again.

''Starting with a win is the way to go,'' said middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. ''It gives you a chance to say, `All right, we got the first one behind us and you don't have to keep waiting for it.' That is what hurt us last year. We lost the first game and it took us a while to get going. If you can get going it sets the tone for the season.''

Said linebacker Thomas Davis: ''It's important to start fast because we don't want to be in the same situation we were in last year and start feeling pressed. We are confident with our team. It's just about executing early. Sure, we were able to pick it up last season, but we don't want to start out slow like that again.''

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