Tonight, the Panthers can get on with 2017.
The early offseason was about diagnosing the 2016 collapse. The spring was about Cam Newton’s shoulder surgery. The summer was about the bizarrely timed firing of GM Dave Gettleman. September was about Newton finding his stride. And just as Newton got there, with Carolina’s upset of the Patriots in Foxborough, last week became about the quarterback and his sexist comments to Charlotte Observer reporter JourdanRodrigue.
Finally, it feels like tonight will be about football—and just football—for Ron Rivera’s group. The 4-1 Panthers host the 4-1 Eagles in the best Thursday night matchup we’ve gotten this season, and one that could wind up affecting playoff seeding two-and-a-half months from now.
“I’d like to think if we can weather those types of storms, handle those kinds of situations, we’re gonna be O.K.,” Rivera said over the phone on Wednesday afternoon, with a little more 24 hours left until kickoff. “That’s what I’d like to believe. I like our guys’ mentality, I like the locker room.”
But it sure has taken the Panthers a while to get to this point—and that, like so many other things in Charlotte over the last seven years, has been centered on getting Newton right. The hope now is that they have the Cam 2.0 that they’ve been building toward.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll kick the tires on the idea that the Jaguars could trade for a veteran quarterback, we’ll look at the mayhem in the Meadowlands, we’ll check in on the Cowboys’ handling of the anthem guidelines that Jerry Jones has set, we’ll explain why the Browns benched DeShone Kizer, and we’ll look deeper at the Chargers’ problems in Los Angeles.
We start, though, with Newton’s pivotal calendar year, and how the Panthers’ vision of a slightly altered version of their franchise QB—a more sustainable version—has come to life. And yes, Newton’s March surgery is a big part of this, but the plan was set into motion well before then, and it’s actually one you’ve seen before.
“The model is Pittsburgh,” Rivera said, referencing Ben Roethlisberger’s growth a half-decade ago. “Look what they do with [Le’Veon] Bell, look what they do with [Antonio] Brown, it’s about getting the ball in the hands of the playmakers as quickly as possible. And you gotta put those guys in position.
“We’d looked at different things that were going on in the league and schemes and different philosophies and ideas—that’s the one we kept drawing back to, get the ball into somebody else’s hands quickly.” For the most part, the aforementioned Steelers plan, which was put in motion by coordinator Todd Haley in 2012, has worked to make Roethlisberger less of a power forward, making throws with guys draped all over him, and more of a point guard, facilitating for others. It makes sense as a blueprint since the Steelers QB played a style like Newton’s, willing to hold the ball and take hits early in his career.
But before carrying it out, the Panthers had to get Newton healthy, and that didn’t happen overnight. The idea of the shoulder surgery he underwent was to make him right not for the next year, but for the next decade—they knew going in they might need to be patient. While Carolina brought Newton back for the start of camp, he did have a setback and at one point was shut down for almost a week. His throwing schedule, and the fact that he threw just two passes in preseason games, made it so the coaches had no idea what he’d look like when he had to let it rip—since doctor’s orders prevented him from really letting it rip in practice—in the opener in San Francisco.
And even after that win over the Niners (Newton was up and down in that one), Carolina had to be careful with him. One week he threw on Wednesday and Friday and was off Thursday. Another, he was off Wednesday and threw Thursday and Friday. Another still he was off Wednesday and throwing light on Thursday.
“It’s like with a baseball pitcher,” Rivera said. “The thing everybody forgets with a pitcher, what happens when they have these problems? Well, you send them down, they go down to the minors for two, three weeks, you get them built back up, and then you bring them back to the majors. We don’t have that luxury, and we didn’t have the true training camp [with Newton] that we would’ve liked to.”
So where the Panthers wanted to work on reprogramming Newton, they couldn’t. And when they wanted to build timing between him and new left tackle Matt Kalil, or him and rookie Christian McCaffrey—the Swiss Army knife drafted to provide those easy completions-turned-big gains—they didn’t always get the reps they needed for it.
That explained why Newton was, in the staff’s eyes, uneven through the first four weeks of the season. It should also illustrate why the New England game was his breakthrough—that was the first week he threw in full during all three days of practice, and led to Newton’s freakish ability flashing again. Against the Patriots, he uncorked one throw from the left hashmark to the right sideline that made Rivera say, as he recalls, O.K., I like what I just saw. Then, against the Lions last week, there was a 31-yard bucket throw to Kelvin Benjamin for a touchdown, made flat-footed, that had Rivera thinking, He’s almost there, he’s almost all the way back.
“He’s probably at 90, 95% right now,” Rivera said. “And I’ll take that with this guy, because this guy is tremendous. The big thing is, timing is so important, [but] building that feel and relationship with your teammates, it’s so important.”
The Panthers can see that coming, too, with Newton hitting a half-dozen receivers in the road wins over New England and Detroit, and hitting each of those six guys multiple times against the Lions. Even better, he’s shown a willingness to dump the ball off. His flip to Fozzy Whitaker on a double-screen against New England, with the defense flowing to McCaffrey and vacating the left side of the field, is a great example of it. He threw the ball probably seven yards in the air; it wound up as a 28-yard touchdown.
“I think he’s learned,” Rivera said. “He still throws those deep digs, he still throws those bang 8s, those deeps outs, and he still throws the vertical. But in between, he’s getting the ball into other players’ hands quicker. And he’s limiting the number of hits he has to take.
“That’s the thing he’s learned, that’s the thing I think he appreciates. I mean, he had a huge day [in Detroit], but it wasn’t like he had to sit there and run the ball. It wasn’t like he had to sit there in the pocket and hold, hold, hold. The ball came out.”
And the hope has been, along with changes on the field, there’d be growth off the field too. Last week gave Newton a test on that count. How the 27-year-old handled the aftermath got Rivera’s attention. Newton showed up to work the next day, last Thursday, locked in mentally, practiced well, then issued his apology after all the work was done.
“He’s had to deal with more than most people deal with in their entire career,” Rivera said. “Some of it’s happened naturally. Some of it, he’s brought on himself. But he’s tried to be that guy who says, O.K., I can compartmentalize it, and I can do football when I have to do football. It’s what I say to the guys: Be where your feet are. Last week he epitomized that as well as you can.”
So now that story is gone, Newton’s healthy, and the offense is geared to help him take the next step. And the Panthers can turn the page on all this, starting tonight.