Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton looked just like his new-old self on Wednesday night.
Newton wore one of his signature sets of cleats – these were the shiny, rose-gold pair from last season’s Christmas Eve game against Atlanta – and the only thing sleeker than his shoes was his improved physique and the pop he put on the ball.
The quarterback was held on a planned pitch count as he threw publicly for the first time since the end of the 2016 season, head coach Ron Rivera confirmed after Wednesday’s two-hour practice. Rivera also said that Newton finished “a couple balls under” that slated amount.
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“Another step in the process, it’s a start,” said Newton, through a team spokesman. “Everything felt good, but we have a long way to go to get where I know we can be. Tonight was just fun getting out on the grass in front of the fans and throwing it around a little bit.”
It was established prior that Newton, who has continued his recovery from shoulder surgery on his throwing arm, would also not launch any of the deep balls that he’s as well-known for as his taste in footwear.
“Yeah, early,” said offensive coordiator Mike Shula. “You know, we’ll just kind of let the trainers take that as we go. So we got him a lot of work early, and individually with the wide receivers. And once practice started, I think he probably threw maybe 20 throws throughout the course of the team and seven-on-seven drills.”
But much of his usual ball velocity was very much present, as many of Newton’s receivers were quick to point out as he rotated with them through short-to-mid-range routes during team periods and drills.
“He’s got a strong arm,” said Shula. “Yeah, he’s gifted. That’s what has made him a pretty good quarterback...I mean, he’s not there yet. We wouldn’t expect him to be.”
Newton did have his rusty moments, including one particularly egregiously underthrown slant to receiver Russell Shepard that didn’t come close to fooling cornerback James Bradberry and resulted in the first interception of training camp.
“Timing was off a little bit,” said Rivera. “But you know, it’s practice one. You can see that he’s starting to get a little more comfortable back there.”
Shula added that getting Newton to agree to dial it back in practices is out of the interest of his own rehabilitation process.
“I thought he did a good job of not trying to do too much,” said Shula. “He’s been really good that way. With all due respect to him, probably five years ago, it would have been a lot harder. But he’s been through so much, he understands that he needs to get himself ready and he can’t do it all in one day.”
To the crowd, Newton was the same as he’s ever been. He yelled and chattered to receivers and ran down the line of offensive players to dole out fist-bumps and encouragement. He egged on the crowd’s screams when he could, and when a receiver made a big play (like rookie Austin Duke’s sideline layout catch), he ran down the field to celebrate.
“He’s infectious, in terms of that,” laughed Rivera. “Now the thing we have to do is sustain it. We have 18 more days out here, and each practice is very valuable to us. What we talked about is practicing with tremendous enthusiasm.”