CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers deserve credit for their messaging lately. To hear it from all members involved, there is no quarterback controversy in Carolina, and all the participants are extremely aware of that.
Check No. 1: Have general manager Marty Hurney express clearly that Cam Newton is the top option and drafting Will Grier in the third round was just about building the best possible football team.
“Nothing to do with Cam,” Hurney said the night the Panthers drafted Grier with the 100th overall selection. “I said he’s our franchise quarterback. This is about depth and bringing in young guys and developing young guys. This has nothing to do with Cam Newton. Cam Newton is our starting quarterback and franchise quarterback. This is just about bringing in young guys to develop and depth.”
Check No. 2: Make sure the rookie knows his place.
“You do what is best for the team in all aspects,” Grier told reporters at a PGA event in Charlotte. “That's really what I am here to do, is to support Cam and be there for him and push him and make him better and be there for anything he needs. But also, my job is to be ready to go when my name is called.”
Check No. 3: Have Newton, who’s never faced any real competition for his starting job in nine professional seasons, welcome Grier with a smile and promise no animosity.
“You would think I would feel intimidated. That’s not the case here,” Newton told an Atlanta news station. “I reached out to Will—I actually saw Will play in high school with him being in Charlotte—and I’m just excited for him to come on the team. He possesses a rare talent, and I’m excited.”
The truth is, if Newton, who turned 30 last weekend, can stay healthy in 2019 and beyond, Grier will truly have been nothing more than an insurance policy. Though Newton’s 2015 contract extension comes to an end after the 2020 season and has little cap consequence if he’s cut before then, Carolina has no intentions of kicking a healthy Newton out the door in favor of the younger, cheaper option.
In the months before the draft and in the weeks since, the people I’ve spoken to around the Panthers and Newton have been cautiously optimistic about the health of the quarterback’s twice-repaired shoulder. The sort of hope that implies his January surgery will be the last one needed on his throwing shoulder. But there’s an understanding—and with it a fear—that there could be a pattern forming.
There’s little debate on when the initial injury to the shoulder occurred. In Week 14 of the 2016 season against the Chargers, Newton threw an end zone interception on a pass intended for Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin—never known for his work ethic—gave up on the live play with a feeble, two-hand touch lunge rather than tackling the defensive back who had just beat him for the interception (though after review, it was determined the defender was down due to contact at the catch point). Newton gave chase and fell hard on his right shoulder in a failed tackle attempt on the other end of the field. He was under the knife the following March.
After a return to the playoffs in 2017, Newton began the ’18 campaign by struggling to connect on deep passes throughout training camp. But through nine weeks, the Panthers were 6-2 and Newton had a career-high completion percentage (67.3%) while tossing 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Then the wheels fell off for the Panthers, a seven-game losing streak sinking the season. The last we saw of Newton he could hardly throw the ball 20 yards in the air during a Week 15 Monday night loss to the Saints. In fact, of his 471 passing attempts last season, Newton threw a career-low 40 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, according to Pro Football Focus.
Undoubtedly, Newton’s shoulder deteriorated as the season went along, but it’s possible that the early-season success masked how poor it was to begin with. During that 6-2 start, Newton had attempted just 23 passes of 20 or more yards, an average of 2.9 passes per game. From Week 10 through the end of his season, Newton attempted 17 passes, an average of 2.8 passes per game. His longest completed throw, in terms of air distance, all season was 40.5 yards, which was third-shortest among qualifying quarterbacks and more than 20 yards shorter than Kirk Cousins’s longest completed air throw.
Some of that has to do with scheme offensive coordinator Norv Turner brought to Carolina last season. There was a greater emphasis than ever before about getting the ball out quicker and modifying the offense to fit today’s NFL. (Hence Christian McCaffrey’s 107 receptions, an NFL record for a running back, and why the Panthers jettisoned big receivers like Benjamin and Devin Funchess without replacing them.) Still, barely halfway through the 2018 season, the Panthers were substituting Taylor Heinicke in for Newton on Hail Mary attempts.
Less than six weeks after the Saints game, Newton had his second shoulder surgery, one that served as a “wash-out” of the joint. “That cartilage damage was not as extensive as we had feared. It was definitely there. We knew that,” team doctor Pat Connor said in Newton’s vlog. “It was pretty small. So if we get that [range of] motion back and keep it, I think we’ll be pretty good.”
In the time since, the Panthers have been wise not to publicly disclose a timetable for Newton. Neither Hurney nor head coach Ron Rivera has said when Newton will start throwing again. (In 2017, he didn’t throw until training camp, though that year he had surgery two months later in the offseason than this most recent procedure.) In the two hours I spent at his annual charity kickball event last week, I didn’t once spot Newton at the mound “pitching” the kickball underhanded.
“You’re going to see me when you see me. I’m just teasing,” Newton said in early May. “For everything, just know that as a player I’m putting myself in the best situation to make sure the franchise is in good hands.”
Truthfully, the Carolina Quarterback Controversy That Isn’t may never come to be. Since the draft, many have positioned it as Newton vs. Grier now or in the future. What happens, though, if the same issues that led to Grier lasting through the first 99 picks of April’s draft also lead to him losing the No. 2 job to Kyle Allen, winner of Carolina’s meaningless Week 17 game against the Saints and well-liked by Turner?
No, this isn’t Newton vs. Grier and certainly not Newton vs. Allen. The 2019 season is Newton versus himself. It’s a fight to get back to the international superstar status he enjoyed following the 2015 MVP season, as hinted at by his loud and proud proclamation of celibacy on a late-night talk show as younger players like Dak Prescott and Patrick Mahomes take up the endorsement roles he once had. It’s a battle to get back to a level of play that will earn him a second long-term contract extension next offseason, when he’ll have one year remaining on his deal. It’s about him taking advantage of the most talented offensive roster he’s had in his career while being placed in a scheme that will force the ball out quickly to protect and extend his career. And it’s a hope that his second shoulder surgery won’t turn into a third as he climbs through his early-30s.
“I’m not changing,” Newton said last week. “But I can get better, that’s one thing that I can do. I like that word—better. At this particular point, the things that make me, me are still cemented in. It’s just up to me to take my game to the next level and kind of branch off and get better.”
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