Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s first game action since New Year’s Day in Tampa likely left fans wanting more.
It left Newton feeling the same way.
Newton’s return was a brief, but successful one – an opening series that ended with a touchdown in the Panthers’ 24-23 exhibition win Thursday at soggy EverBank Field.
Newton, coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, completed the only two passes he attempted, including a check-down to new weapon Christian McCaffrey and a 9-yard scoring strike to Kelvin Benjamin, one of Newton’s favorite targets.
And that was it, as the Panthers’ medical staff continued its cautious approach in protecting one of the franchise’s most valuable assets and getting him ready for Week 1 in San Francisco.
“I was excited when they told me I was able to play. They didn’t tell me how much. I just wish I’d played a little longer,” Newton said.
“I feel behind in a lot of ways,” he added. “But the optimism of this game is we did have a great first drive. But we’ve just got to keep pushing forward in practice and be ready when our number’s called.”
Newton’s importance was underscored by the play of the quarterback who came in after him. Derek Anderson struggled for the second week in a row, a performance that figures to increase public pleas for the Panthers to make Joe Webb – or Colin Kaepernick? – the No. 2 QB behind Newton.
The good news is that Newton looks to be on the road to recovery, although it’s tough to take too much away from a cameo that didn’t require him to break much of a sweat.
For the first six plays of the Panthers’ first offensive series, it looked like Panthers coach Ron Rivera was playing a joke on the rest of the NFL.
Six times Newton took the snap from center, and six times Newton stuck the ball in the gut of Jonathan Stewart or McCaffrey. Rivera said Newton had run-pass options on a couple of the plays, but the Jags’ defensive look dictated run calls.
With the offensive line gashing the Jaguars’ defensive front, the Panthers quickly moved into Jacksonville territory.
Then on a second-and-6, Newton stood in the pocket and went through his reads before coming underneath to McCaffrey for 12 yards.
And the heavens shook. (Actually, that was before the game when lightning forced officials to clear the stadium for about 30 minutes.)
This was not the kind of rapid-fire play the Panthers dreamed of when they drafted McCaffrey No. 8 overall so Newton would have an outlet to the get the ball out of his hands quickly.
This was more of a layup, which is what owner Jerry Richardson called the easy throws Newton often overlooked early in his career while launching the ball downfield.
At any rate, what followed were two more handoffs to McCaffrey, creating a third-and-6 from the Jacksonville 9.
Newton took the shotgun snap from Ryan Kalil, looked to left and fired to Benjamin, who somersaulted into the end zone for the touchdown. Benjamin, who lost his mother prior to the start of training camp, pointed to the heavens then celebrated with a number of teammates, including Newton.
Newton’s line had the look of August: 2-for-2 passing for 21 yards and a touchdown, and eight handoffs, including an out-of-sync exchange with McCaffrey.
Kalil, playing his first game since last October, said he could tell Newton was juiced Thursday – even for a preseason game.
“I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t a little extra excited to be out there,” he said.
When the Panthers pulled Newton after the initial drive, it was Anderson’s turn.
It did not go well.
Anderson completed 10 of 19 passes for 66 yards. He finished with no touchdowns, one interception on a ball the threw into double coverage, and an ugly 38.5 passer rating.
While Anderson floundered, Webb was sidelined with a strained neck, an injury that occurred in practice this week.
Rivera usually rests most of his starters during the fourth preseason game. But he faces a tough decision with Newton, who clearly could use another game to shake off the rust and work on his timing, particularly with new additions like McCaffrey and wideout Curtis Samuel.
Asked whether Newton’s short stint Thursday meant he would play next week against Pittsburgh, Rivera said: “Not necessarily.”
Newton has yet to let loose with a long throw on a deep corner or an out route from the opposite hash, the kind of passes he’ll need to make routinely when the games count.
Newton indicated he’d like a few more preseason reps. Rivera has to decided whether the risk of getting Newton a little more work is worth losing the 2015 league MVP with to a shoulder setback or freak injury.
Newton was asked whether one series was enough to prepare him for the regular season.
“Absolutely. I ain’t got no choice,” he said. “But when everything gets to going, pretty sure coach will have everybody ready to go.”