Carolina Panthers

Analysis: Before injury, Cam Newton looked solid — but Panthers need to help him

From one Cam Newton question mark to another.

Thursday night’s preseason contest between the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots was Newton’s first game action since December, when the team opted to sit him due to shoulder soreness and tightness. Newton had arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January, and for the past half a year, he’s been patiently rehabbing.

Newton missed the Panthers’ first two preseason games as part of that rehab process, making Thursday his 2019 NFL debut. It also meant that, after months of waiting, we’d hopefully get answers to all the pressing questions surrounding Carolina’s franchise quarterback.

Can he throw deep? Is there any lingering soreness, or tightness, or anything that would make him struggle? Has all the missed time affected his chemistry with his pass-catchers?

In Newton’s limited snaps through three series Thursday, there were encouraging answers.

And still, there are more questions.

Newton’s first two plays from scrimmage were handoffs to Christian McCaffrey, setting up a third-and-7. Newton lined up in the shotgun with McCaffrey to his left, and easily found DJ Moore on a crossing route for three yards. No first down, but a completed in-game pass.

On the team’s second offensive series, Newton opened with a short toss to Greg Olsen in the left flat that went for four yards.

And then on second down, Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy blew past Chris Manhertz with a perfectly-timed jump. He barreled around the right side of Carolina’s offensive line and straight into Newton, knocking the quarterback to his back. That was Newton’s first hit in practically eight months, and he had no trouble picking himself off the turf at Gillette Stadium and finishing the series.

On his third and final series, Newton saw even more action — and pressure.

His first pass, a 13-yard completion along the left side to Curtis Samuel, was his longest of the night. It was accurate, with enough arm strength, and good for the team’s first first down of the night. The next play, Newton’s pocket started to collapse and forced him to roll right, where he found McCaffrey for a short dump-off and a first down.

The following play was a less successful version of that outlet, as the pocket again collapsed. Newton rolled right, but with no receivers open, he had to throw the ball away. On second-and-10, Newton again saw heavy pressure on a screen, which was tipped at the line and fell incomplete to McCaffrey.

Then the dam broke.

On third down, Newton’s pocket began to collapse for the fourth straight play. He scrambled while remaining in the pocket — doing the same impressive feats with his legs he has done the last eight seasons — and looked desperately for an open receiver. There were none. Eventually, Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler grabbed Newton in the lower left leg and managed to bring him down for the sack.

Newton then limped off to the sideline and briefly consulted with team medical staff before heading back to the locker room. He walked off under his own power, but as he left, the team announced he had a foot injury and would not return.

Newton later left the stadium in a walking boot. Coach Ron Rivera said he could offer no updates about Newton’s condition, although a source told the Observer the team hopes his injury is not serious.

Newton’s foot is a new beast, but for all the questions about his shoulder coming into Thursday, the quarterback largely put them to bed.

“I thought he threw a couple of nice balls,” Rivera said. “I mean, the unfortunate part was we had also a screen pass that was set up that was probably going to go for a big gain, and unfortunately we didn’t connect on that. It’s hard to evaluate that when those things happen.

“But again, like I said, I thought he threw a couple of really nice balls. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any more of that.”

That comes back to this fact: The biggest issue with Newton on Thursday night was everyone around Newton.

His offensive line, which started in front of backup Kyle Allen last week against Buffalo, struggled mightily for the second game in a row. His receivers, as dynamic as they have been this summer, struggled to find separation.

There was pressure in his face, and no one to look to, and yet, Newton was still running around looking to keep the play alive.

“Probably my biggest disappointment was really what happened up front,” Rivera said. “You know, I thought those guys played well the first couple of weeks, did some good things, and all of a sudden it’s like we made too many mistakes to give ourselves a chance.”

Newton’s longest pass wasn’t anything special — that 13-yard out-route to Samuel — but it also didn’t have any issues. It didn’t lack velocity and wasn’t inaccurate. No, it wasn’t a strenuous deep pass, but Newton has thrown a number of deep completions throughout training camp that traveled 40-45 yards in the air. He finished Thursday 4-for-6 for 30 yards.

There were no apparent lingering shoulder issues, though he did not attempt any beyond 13 yards.

How Newton’s arm holds up over the course of a 16-game season is yet to be seen. There’s no way of knowing if it will. But for the here and now, we know what we know, which is that Newton appeared to be back to a somewhat-normal form.

The most important context to consider here is that this is the preseason. Players and teams aren’t going all-out, and that applies to the game plan and how many snaps starters take. This offensive line — with a new center and left tackle returning from a season-ending knee injury — will gel as time goes on, and young playmakers such as Samuel and Moore will continue figuring out ways to get open.

But now, Newton departs New England with a new physical question mark surrounding him and the start of the Panthers season.

Right as one set of questions were set to be buried, a new batch springs up.

And this time, they’re not Newton’s to answer.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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