Carolina Panthers

Inside Panthers’ decision to shut down Cam Newton, and what must inevitably come next

Wednesday, for the first time since the Carolina Panthers opened training camp in the summer, there was no music playing at a team practice.

Instead, the faint clang of nearby construction and the shrieking of coaches’ whistles pierced the somber air. Quarterback Cam Newton, dressed in sweats and tennis shoes, stood in the back of drills through the day’s workout.

Newton will sit out the Panthers’ final two games, a league source told the Observer on Wednesday. The team later confirmed that Newton would not play on Sunday.

And the day the music died in Charlotte is only the beginning , with sobering questions about the future looming.

Newton will not go on injured reserve, instead remaining on the Panthers’ 53-man roster. Backup Taylor Heinicke will start this Sunday against Atlanta, the Panthers’ final home game of the season, and will likely start in Week 17 at New Orleans.

What happens after that is a little less clear.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke (6) warms up as quarterback Cam Newton (1) looks on during practice on Wednesday, December 19, 2018. The Carolina Panthers announced today that Newton will sit for the remaining two games of the season. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The right move

Newton didn’t just sound disappointed after Monday night’s loss to the New Orleans Saints, as he spoke in greater detail about his shoulder than ever before.

He sounded like he was without hope, after a year of endless exercises in futility. His shoulder, he said, has not gotten better — or worse _ despite a wide range of treatments.

“It doesn’t matter how much you push,” he said, dejectedly. “Ice, anti-inflammatories you take. ... I mean, trust me, I did it. Acupuncture. Massages. It’s just not been a time that (a) night has gone by without me getting some type of work done on my arm.

“We just don’t have the strength, from the range of motion.”

On Tuesday, head coach Ron Rivera met with the team’s doctors, general manager Marty Hurney, owner David Tepper to discuss Newton’s health and immediate future. Wednesday, Newton got the news.

“It was a very good conversation with Cam,” said Rivera on Wednesday afternoon. “He understood our thinking behind this. He’s disappointed. He’s frustrated. He wants to play. This is just one of those things where we had a great conversation, and he understands going forward.”

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Newton was limited in practice on Wednesdays and some Thursdays all of last season after his surgery the previous spring. He first popped up on the Panthers’ injury report in Week 8 this year, during which he went back on what Rivera calls a “pitch count” as the team tried to preserve his arm for as long as possible.

But many factors have played into Newton’s shoulder distress, adding to the uncertainty from week to week. They include the hits he has taken in the past two years and the number of throws he has made per game.

The Panthers appeared to try to adjust as early as Week 1 of this season.

Newton strayed away from the deep ball in favor of shorter passes and checkdown plays. He wasn’t put in as many short-yardage running situations, despite his remarkable success on those plays in the past. He indicated this week that the staff tried to keep him at 25 to 30 throws in a game.

But big hits kept coming. And the Panthers, on a six-game slide, have often had to play from behind, requiring more passing plays.

Newton tried to push through, at times appearing to painfully heave throws and removing himself from the game for three of the Panthers’ four Hail Mary pass attempts this season.

In Monday’s loss to the Saints, Newton’s longest pass traveled 17 yards down the field, and all of his other 28 pass attempts were under 15 yards.

“I think looking at the game, and just the fact that it got sore (was one of the catalytic factors),” Rivera said. “Partly because we played on Monday night and it’s a real short recovery week for him.

“There are a lot of factors that we discussed and talked about. And again, this is what we think is best.”

It was the right move for Carolina, especially after Monday night’s loss all but slammed the door on any hope of a postseason appearance.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) looks on as he stands beside quarterbacks coach Scott Turner on the sideline during practice on Wednesday, December 19, 2018. The Carolina Panthers announced today that Newton will sit for the remaining two games of the season. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Getting time

Newton, who didn’t speak to the media on Wednesday, said Monday night that with so much unclear about the nature of the soreness and tension in his shoulder, he thinks what he needs to heal properly is “just time.”

He has not gotten it. In 2016, Newton injured his shoulder in Week 14 but didn’t miss any games and flatly declined to sit in Week 17. He did not have surgery on the shoulder until the end of March, after first trying to rehab the injury.

Earlier this month, Newton admitted that he did not expect his recovery process to be so long and so painful.

Now, he’s getting time off.

Rivera, asked directly on Wednesday afternoon, would not expand on whether Tuesday’s conversation covered Newton’s long-term health. He also referred reporters to team medical personnel multiple times in response to questions about Newton’s shoulder, but head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion declined to comment via a Panthers spokesperson.

“Right now, we’re not at that point. We’re at the point where this is the best thing for the short term,” Rivera said. “And we’ll see what happens.”

But for Newton to accept the decision, despite refusing to do so at least once before in his career, speaks to what is at stake for him and his own consideration of the big picture.

“I think it was because of the frustration of it, more so than anything else,” Rivera said. “He knows that once he gets sore, once he gets tired out there, it’s tough for him to do the things that he’s capable of.”

But it might be something else, too.

Newton posted on Instagram on Tuesday night that he just wanted “to cuddle with his daughters, and wrestle with his sons.”

He’s looking out for his long-term health on the field, sure.

But as he’s grown into adulthood, and fatherhood, he’s also making sure he can be at his best self for his children, too.

Yet from purely a franchise perspective, the Panthers must consider even more.

Looking toward the future

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke (6) warms up during practice on Wednesday, December 19, 2018. The Carolina Panthers announced today that Newton will sit for the remaining two games of the season. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Heinicke, a former Old Dominion quarterback, might be in a “tryout” of sorts for the next two weeks and was named Sunday’s definite starter.

But that doesn’t mean that the backup job will be his next fall.

The Panthers have decisions about the backup position to make in the offseason, as Newton is given the time he needs to recover. He said Monday that he doesn’t know if a second surgery is in his future.

So the Panthers must formulate a plan. Do they draft for the future in April? Or do they take a leaf out of Philadelphia’s book and sign a starting-caliber quarterback in the offseason?

That worked for the Eagles in 2017, when backup Nick Foles quarterbacked them to a Super Bowl victory.

But their success also means the market for a good backup has been inflated. And the Panthers have a lot of retooling to do on their offensive line and on defense, too. That won’t be cheap, and many of those needs can’t be filled with rookies.

So it might be that Newton’s heir is drafted this spring, and simply given time to develop.

And that might be a best case scenario for Newton to eventually finish his career on his terms, and for the Panthers to have a plan in place for the “eventually” — unlike where they are now.

After all, Rivera and Hurney have drafted a franchise quarterback before, when they held the No. 1 overall pick in 2011.

And that guy has turned out to be pretty good.

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