Seizing on a reporter’s reference last week, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera agreed that resting Cam Newton’s sore throwing shoulder during the week was the “new normal” for the team’s seventh-year quarterback.
Except it’s not entirely new.
The Panthers used the same approach with Newton to get him to the finish line in a disappointing 2016 season, and then again at training camp this summer when Newton was coming off rotator cuff surgery.
Rest, rinse, repeat.
Newton seems to be caught in a rough spin cycle.
He takes it easy during the week to prevent further wear and tear on the shoulder, lacks touch and rhythm on Sundays because of his limited practice repetitions, and then has to do it all over again the following week because of soreness caused by his gameday workload.
That’s been the pattern through the first two weeks entering Sunday’s game against New Orleans, and no one knows exactly what or when the end game is.
“It’s the same thing we went through through training camp. You want to shake (the rust) off. You want to get him out there,” Rivera said. “But what you don’t want to do is for the arm not to have a chance to rest.”
A frustrated Newton said he was disappointed in himself last week after the 9-3 victory over Buffalo. Newton completed 20 of 32 passes against the Bills, but he missed an open Christian McCaffrey in the flat for what would have been a put-away score at the Buffalo 2 in the final three minutes.
In a Week 1 victory at San Francisco, Newton overthrew tight end Ed Dickson in the end zone when – in Rivera’s view – Newton got too excited and failed to set his feet before throwing.
Newton, whose 52.9 completion percentage was the worst among starting quarterbacks last season, is disappointed by his accuracy issues.
“Missing layups like that, it’s uncalled for,” Newton said after the Bills game. “I wish I had about two or three balls back, but that’s in every single game. You know with those balls completed, the outcome of the game is potentially different.”
A hot topic
Newton’s timing issues – especially with first- and second-round draft picks McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel – have been a hot topic since Spartanburg. After a full workload the first week of camp, the medical staff shut him down for 12 days, and he ended up playing just one series and attempting two passes during the preseason.
That kept him from establishing much rapport with McCaffrey and Samuel. The two versatile athletes were drafted by former general manager Dave Gettleman as targets that Newton could get the ball to quickly and complete more layups, as Newton called them.
That remains a work in progress.
McCaffrey has been targeted 12 times and has caught nine passes, but they’ve only covered 72 yards, with a long of 16.
Samuel, the former Ohio State wideout, has two receptions for 7 yards.
“I think everybody’s still getting in a little bit of a rhythm,” McCaffrey said. “But we’re 2-0 not playing the way we wanted to. It’s better than 0-2 not playing the way we wanted to.
“Once we start getting in a rhythm, once everybody starts getting on the same page, there’s a lot of plays to be made.”
The Panthers rank 25th in the league in passing offense (174.5 yards per game) and 23rd in scoring (16.0).
No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin says Newton is starting to throw with more “zip on the ball” after beginning camp with diminished arm strength.
“You’ve got to be nervy as a quarterback coming off a surgery like that on your throwing shoulder. You’re kind of worried that you’re not going to get it there,” Benjamin said. “But he’s letting it go. That’s all we can ask.”
Newton has completed only one pass longer than 25 yards through the first two games. And that 40-yard touchdown to Russell Shepard in Week 1 included 20 yards after the catch.
‘Manage the week’
Rivera says he’s been in other situations where coaches had to “manage the week” for their quarterbacks.
As a player in Chicago, Rivera said Mike Ditka would give Jim McMahon days off for various injuries. And when Rivera was a Chargers assistant, he remembers Philip Rivers occasionally getting held out of practice.
Early in Newton’s career, he refused to take a “vet day,” which Rivera likes to give older players. But his shoulder pain has made them a necessity.
Newton has tried to stay engaged in practices, making handoffs, taking his dropback steps and mentally going through his read progressions.
But none of that is as important as throwing, says former NFL defensive back Ronde Barber.
“Just going through the mechanics and getting in the huddle and taking the snap, you can re-create that stuff,” said Barber, who played 19 seasons. “But to actually throw the ball and get a feel for how it looks with those (new) pieces, I think that’s hard.”
Barber, part of the Fox crew that will call Sunday’s game, isn’t sold on the Panthers’ evolution as it pertains to Newton. Barber, who praised Newton as a “gamer,” says calling fewer running plays for him takes away a part of what makes Newton unique.
“The thing you’ve got to ask yourself is what’s the real ceiling for Cam Newton? ... The 2015 MVP Cam – is that the best Cam we’re ever going to see?” Barber said.
“I think a lot of people want to make him into this great pocket passer. But does he even really have the acumen to be that guy?”
Newton says he has to trust the process and is pleased the Panthers won their first two games on the strength of their defense. Things figure to get trickier without injured tight end Greg Olsen and (possibly) center Ryan Kalil during a more difficult stretch of the schedule.
But the real question concerns Newton, and whether the Panthers have seen the last of the old Cam in the new normal?