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There’s Something Off With Cam Newton

Look closely, and you’ll see Carolina indirectly answering the biggest question facing the franchise right now—will we ever see a vintage Cam Newton again?

Often times when people don’t directly answer a question they don’t want asked, they wind up answering it indirectly by doing just that.

Like when the Carolina Panthers took a quarterback in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft, the highest the team has ever selected a quarterback since taking Cam Newton came to town. Or when this offseason and preseason came and went without a hint of contract-extension talk for Newton, the franchise quarterback who turned 30 in May and has just two years left on his deal. Or when Newton, one of the NFL’s most prolific rushers at the quarterback position in its history, has rushed five times for -2 yards and lost two fumbles through two games.

But perhaps the greatest answer to the question the Panthers don’t want to answer came on their final offensive play of Thursday night’s 20–14 loss to the Buccaneers. On fourth-and-one from the Tampa two-yard line and needing a touchdown, Carolina didn’t even have Newton touch the ball. Instead, the team opted for a sort of fake-reverse with Christian McCaffrey, who couldn’t beat cornerback Vernon Hargreaves to the first-down marker or into the end zone. The Panthers turned the ball over on downs, moving to 0–2 on the 2019 season.

For years handing the ball to Newton was an automatic decision in third- and fourth-and-short situations. He’s 6' 5" and has been between 245 and 260 pounds for his entire pro career. Coaches and players today still marvel at his size even though he’s been in the league for nine seasons. Give him the ball and let him go over the defense for the first down.

Except, this isn’t 2013 anymore—or ’15, even. This is 2019—and Newton has two shoulder surgeries in his past, plus an ankle surgery, plus broken bones in his back, plus a couple head injuries, plus broken ribs, plus a foot sprain suffered just three weeks ago. He’s behind an offensive line that proved ineffective at times when protecting him. Newton dunking over the line of scrimmage is no longer a guaranteed slam dunk.

This is what every action and inaction the Panthers have taken in 2019 has indicated: There is a belief that the Cam we all once knew won’t return.

“I feel OK,” Newton said after the Thursday night game when asked if he felt comfortable running the ball. “You’re not going to hear no type of reasons why tonight didn’t go as planned. I have to be better. No matter what physical condition I’m in, no matter what foot or shoulder, I didn’t get the job done tonight. It’s frustrating, and I wish I could say something other than that but that’s the facts.”

This isn’t to say that Newton was completely ineffective against the Buccaneers—he completed 25-of-51 passes for 333 yards, connecting with Greg Olsen and Curtis Samuel for some big plays. But he had no touchdowns and he lost a fumble, not to mention his accuracy was less than great. The Panthers’ 14 points on Thursday came from four field goals and a safety.

“I’m an extremely, brutally honest with people and I’m extremely, brutally honest with myself. It’s time for me to look myself in the mirror and do some real soul searching because I had opportunities tonight, and I didn’t get it done.”

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One of Newton’s most admirable traits is he never casts blame on others. It’d be tough for Newton to do that now with his team at 0–2 and with zero touchdown contributions from himself so far this season, but there are no excuses nonetheless. He and the offense got booed by the home crowd louder than ever Thursday night, and he took it in stride by saying he understood why the Charlotte crowd was booing.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has made a habit out of defending Newton. He hitched his wagon to Newton in 2011 when the Panthers scooped the Auburn product with the No. 1 overall pick to go with the first-time head coach. He protected Newton as a coach would a quarterback, but he did it also out of necessity for how unfairly Newton was treated early in his career by referees on the field and observers off it.

Today, his habit is defending Newton’s health. He did it last season when it was obvious to everyone that Newton couldn’t throw The Duke 20 yards, and he did it after the game by saying in no uncertain terms that the quarterback’s shoulder or foot had nothing to do with the gameplan or calls.

But Newton, who is one throwback game away from topping Randall Cunningham for second on the all-time rushing yards list for quarterbacks, has negative rushing yards through two games. And though he finally pushed the ball downfield Thursday night, he’s noticeably worse throwing to the right side of the field than he is across his body or to the middle of the field.

Newton has an 80.8% completion rate to the left side of the field this season, a 56.7% completion rate to the middle and 40% to the right side. In total he’s 12-of-30 for 171 yards and an interception throwing to the right side of the field. Why is that?

“I can’t answer that question, sir,” Newton said. “I’m a quarterback… That’s valuable information. No matter where I’m throwing it I have to complete the pass.”

Last year, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner implemented an offense that encouraged Newton to take what the defense gave him after years of other failed attempts in Carolina. This season the father-son duo helped overhaul his learning strategy off the field. And with an assist from passing guru Tom House, Newton got a tighter, more compact throwing motion this season that hasn’t turned up any fruit.

Is it time yet to press the panic button in Charlotte? The Panthers are 24–26 since that magical 2015 Super Bowl season with an 0-1 postseason record to add. The Panthers have an eager second-year owner who has made changes all over this franchise except for the general manager, head coach and quarterback. It’s not hard to see a dim future for Newton, especially after this start.  

“Sometimes you find yourself in a blender,” Newton said, “and the only person who can get you out is yourself.”

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