The Carolina Panthers packed up in Spartanburg and returned to Charlotte this week, but the question that has hovered over the team for five months followed them home.
Judging from some of the responses from Panthers coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton on Thursday, everyone’s tired of answering it.
The health of Newton’s left ankle has been the dominant storyline since March, when team orthopedist and renowned foot and ankle specialist Robert Anderson performed surgery to tighten the ligaments in Newton’s ankle.
Since then, every move, cut, grimace and sign of a limp Newton has made in practice has been hashed out and analyzed.
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Next up for Newton is playing.
Rivera said Newton would play the first quarter of Sunday night’s nationally-televised exhibition against Kansas City at Bank of America Stadium. Rivera made no guarantees beyond that.
“We’ll see,” Rivera said after Thursday’s practice. “Right now the initial plan is to get him into the first quarter and then go from there.”
Rivera plans to give his starters their most extensive playing time of the preseason against the Chiefs. That type of workload is typical of the third exhibition, but the short turnaround before the Aug. 22 exhibition at New England prompted Rivera to break from tradition.
But Newton has been on his own schedule – one carefully plotted out by the team’s athletic trainers, coaches and doctors – since March. He sat out all but the last practice during organized team activities in June and was held out of last week’s exhibition opener against Buffalo.
He was allowed to begin running read-option plays Sunday at Wofford, but Rivera has said the zone read won’t be part of the offense against Kansas City.
Newton said his ankle is still less than 100 percent, but wouldn’t put an exact percentage on it. He said he’s talked to other athletes who’ve come back from injuries, and all of them told him to stick with the rehab.
“The thing that keeps coming back up is, ‘Keep treating it. Treat it when it feels good, treat it when it feels bad. Don’t be that guy that only treats it when it’s nagging. Try to stay ahead of the pain,’ ” Newton said. “That’s what I’ve been doing, and it’s been paying off.”
Tight end Greg Olsen said it would be good for Newton get live snaps Sunday.
“I think he’s probably itching at it. To practice and not play kind of stinks. So I’m sure he’s eager to get back out there,” Olsen said. “I know as an offense we’re eager to get him out there and come together as a group.”
Rivera said part of the thinking in limiting Newton against Kansas City is concern he’ll aggravate the injury trying to do too much.
“He can’t help himself because he loves to compete and he wants to win,” Rivera said. “That is one of the things that is of concern – that he’ll get out there and he may see something, he may go from a three to a seven (in effort level) and the next thing you know he’s out there doing his thing. That’s just who he is. He’s very competitive.”
Newton participated in every drill during Thursday’s shorts-and-helmets session on the Panthers’ practice fields. He motioned for head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion early in the two-hour practice, although Newton later said the conversation was routine.
It wasn’t Newton’s best showing. He overthrew several receivers, including first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin. But Rivera was encouraged by Newton’s performance in the hurry-up offense.
“Probably the thing he does best is when we do some of our quick-time work. He gets into a real good rhythm and you see that earlier in practice,” Rivera said. “As we slow things down and start working just team stuff, then you see him start thinking and looking at things instead of just reacting.”
Newton said he remains focused on the bigger picture.
“Each day it’s been getting better and better for me. At this point we don’t want to have any mishaps in the treatment process,” Newton said. “I’m doing as much as I can, or as much as (Vermillion) is allowing me to do with my ankle, so I can be 100 percent when the time is needed.”