Optimism and over-confidence are about as common during NFL training camps as sunburns or bug bites; it’s not often that patience enters the equation. Everyone wants answers to their questions, and they want them yesterday. After all, the games that actually matter begin in about a month.
And that’s why what Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said Thursday was particularly revealing.
Newton hadn’t spoken to local media since December. Since then, he had an arthroscopic shoulder procedure, lost longtime teammates Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil and has pushed through a many-months-long rehabilitation process that bled into this summer.
Yet in that time — as evidenced in his video blog over the winter and in Amazon’s “All or Nothing” series — Newton was able to reflect. After two shoulder surgeries in the last three years, Newton isn’t rushing himself back at risk to his own — and the Panthers’ — long-term prosperity.
“It’s a process,“ Newton said. “I don’t want people to assume, ‘Oh, Cam’s back.’ I’m doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that I’m able to practice and (have) the capabilities that I know I can, and this team expects me to be.”
That idea — of a still-ongoing rehab process and the awareness he’s not yet a finished product — conflicts with Newton’s Superman-like playing style.
“One thing that I wanted to work on that’s simple is just being honest with myself,” Newton continued. “Knowing when my body’s talking to me, knowing that it’s OK to sit out a practice, focus on the body. I’m at a point in my career where I’m as hungry as ever, but I have to be as smart as ever, as well.
“... I know now, guys like DJ, guys like Kirko (Curtis Samuel) and everybody else that’s on board on the offense needs me to be my best self. My best self may be taking care of my body in ways that the feel may not possess.”
Newton has never been one to voluntarily excuse himself from a practice, even after games where his physical running style translates to more vicious hits. But given how dependent this team is on Newton being at full-strength — look at last year’s Week 15 loss to the Saints to see how Carolina looks with a less-than-100 percent Newton — he said he understands at this point in his career that he has to prioritize his own body. Case in point: Thursday’s practice was the third day in seven training camp practices that he hasn’t participated in team drills, instead taking a scheduled rest day.
Again, not an easy transition to make. But in addition to being honest with himself, Newton and the Panthers are taking steps to put the quarterback in the best situation to succeed.
That starts with the players general manager Marty Hurney has put around Newton, along the offensive line and at the skill positions, but also how Newton is adjusting his game. Newton and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner have been working on making his throwing motion more “compact,” meaning his chest and shoulder and entire body work in unison to create one continuous motion. The purpose is to decrease the tension on Newton’s shoulder, as instead of lagging behind the rest of his body, the actual throwing movement his shoulder makes goes along with his body’s overall momentum.
Newton said focusing on short-to-intermediate throws so far at camp has helped his muscle memory with that new motion.
“Throwing small helps that, helps your technique,” he said. “You know, you go in the gym and start shooting 3s doesn’t necessarily help your technique of shooting. The closer you are to the goal, that’s in theory, the more short-intermediate passes that you can work on.
“Making sure your body transferring is (perfect), that’s been my main focus. So now when you come out here and you’ve got (deep attempts like) nine routes, you’ve got big eights, I haven’t been necessarily trying to perfect those things, but that’ll come over time. When you’ve got the guys that we’ve got, you’ve just got to put it in the vicinity.”
Just because Newton hasn’t been stressing those deep passes doesn’t mean he hasn’t practiced them.
On the first night of training camp at Wofford College, Newton connected on a pair of deep balls to Curtis Samuel and Chris Manhertz that each traveled about 35-40 yards in the air. Samuel’s especially was impressive, as he got behind the entire defense for a touchdown.
As for what Newton thought when he saw that first one drop into Samuel’s hands?
“I think it was a sigh of relief for a lot of people because I wasn’t right at the end of the season,” Newton said. “And it was even a sigh of relief for myself as well, being able to throw like that again. But like I said, it’s a process.”
Of course, not everything Newton said was as introspective about his own health. He heaped praise onto the team’s budding receiver pairing of Samuel and DJ Moore, and said he wants the Carolinas to finally “have something to brag about.” He joked about owner David Tepper’s worth and noted how the team can’t replace a player like Thomas Davis.
All typical Cam Newton commentary.
But most striking was Newton’s own sense of where he stands, both with his rehab and his longevity. He’ll continue working on his fundamentals and his deep balls as training camp progresses, but he’ll also take scheduled rest days like he did Thursday. It’s all about ensuring the Panthers’ best player is fully recovered from his lingering shoulder issues.
So patience is required.
“I keep saying it, it’s a process,” Newton said. “Sometimes it’s easier than other times. But you’ve just got to keep moving forward, being obedient to coaches and trainers and everybody that has your best interest, and knowing just follow the plan.”