The Panthers accomplished a lot during their nearly three-week stay in what locals call the Sparkle City.
They installed the bulk of their new-look offense, got confirmation that Christian McCaffrey’s diverse skill set translates to the pros and held their annual P.I.G. basketball tournament, preserved for posterity in a couple of entertaining tweets by Pro Bowl center/Hollywood mogul Ryan Kalil.
What the Panthers didn’t do during training camp is receive complete assurance that their most important player will soon be back to full strength.
Coaches, teammates and the medical staff all believe quarterback Cam Newton and his surgically repaired shoulder will be good to go Week 1 in San Francisco. There’s been no sense of panic from coach Ron Rivera or interim general manager Marty Hurney in regards to Newton.
“There’s no reason to (panic). We’re just listening to what the doctors and trainers say. They’re optimistic, as long as we don’t have a setback, which we don’t anticipate,” Rivera said after Sunday’s final practice in Spartanburg.
“We’re feeling good about where we are right now. It’s very positive.”
Everyone certainly would have felt better about the situation had No. 1 not spent most of the final two weeks at Wofford stretching, taking half-speed handoffs and making only a few live throws to receivers.
But Newton ended on an upswing Sunday with his most extensive action since trainers shut him down two weeks ago with arm fatigue.
Newton threw for 10 minutes during individuals, including a fade pass to Kelvin Benjamin and a toss over the middle to McCaffrey. He then participated in 11-on-11 red-zone drills, completing 3-of-4 passes, highlighted by a scoring strike to Russell Shepard.
The plan is for Newton to continue increasing his pitch count over the next two weeks, and Rivera said he could be a part of the joint practices with the Titans next week in Nashville.
“I think he’s going to be all right,” backup quarterback Derek Anderson said. “But like Coach has said, it’s a process with anybody. (Friday) he looked pretty good to me.”
Friday was the first time Newton had thrown live to receivers since July 30 when he was pulled near the end of his fifth practice in five days. The following day Newton went to Charlotte for a consultation with team doctor Pat Connor, who performed the surgery in March on Newton’s partially torn rotator cuff.
The decision was made to scale back Newton’s workload to let the pain in his shoulder subside. There was also concern about the range of motion in Newton’s shoulder, and team officials didn’t want the 2015 league MVP to develop poor throwing habits while overcompensating for the shoulder.
With Newton getting shelved after doing everything the first week of camp, it’s fair to ask whether he pushed himself too hard or whether too much was put on his plate.
“I don’t think so,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “You had to find out a little bit. And then being very cautious, where we’re not all of a sudden going to do anything to set him back.”
The Panthers have been gradually increasing Newton’s activity.
He began by doing light throwing with head trainer Ryan Vermillion, who for a couple of days was Newton’s favorite target. Newton then threw on the side to injured rookie receiver Curtis Samuel one day before jumping back into individual drills with his wideouts for 10 minutes Friday.
After a day off Saturday, Newton made what Rivera called a “good step” Sunday. His day included lining up at wideout with McCaffrey behind center in the Wildcat formation.
The Panthers would like him to play in a preseason game. The third exhibition at Jacksonville on Aug. 24, when the starters will get their longest work, would make the most sense if you had to pick only one.
But Rivera said he’s fine if Newton’s first action comes Sept. 10 at Levi’s Stadium, site of Super Bowl 50.
“As long as we’re doing things at an up-tempo with a good pace, we can get the timing down that we need,” Rivera said. “But you really can’t simulate playing and that’s the big difference.”
Besides building arm strength, the biggest thing for Newton between now and Week 1 will be working on his timing with his receivers and running backs, particularly new weapons McCaffrey, Samuel and Shepard.
This is not the first time the Panthers have had to monitor Newton’s reps during the preseason. When Newton was coming off offseason ankle surgery in 2014, he was held out of the first exhibition and played the next two.
In the third preseason game at New England, a hit by linebacker Jamie Collins left Newton with cracked ribs and he missed the season opener at Tampa Bay.
So the Panthers rightly aren’t going to take any chances with Newton in games that don’t count.
In Indianapolis, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck remains on the physically unable to perform list while rehabbing from January shoulder surgery. You can imagine the hand-wringing among the Hoosiers.
At least Newton is back on the field. The key for the Panthers is keeping him there.