Quarterback Cam Newton’s health has been the dominant storyline surrounding the Panthers since March, and it will continue to be the case for at least a couple more days.
Newton, who’s been dealing with cracked ribs for the past two weeks, was listed as questionable on the team’s injury report Friday. Under the NFL’s injury reporting guidelines, that means the Panthers believe Newton has a 50 percent chance of playing in Sunday’s season opener at Tampa Bay.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Newton threw passes and took all the reps he was scheduled to during Friday’s practice. Rivera was encouraged with Newton’s progress, but said Newton would be a game-day decision, likely Sunday morning.
“I do feel better. He did take the next step, kind of what we were hoping, especially in light of how he felt the other day,” Rivera said. “There was some concern obviously coming into practice. But he just seems to be getting stronger right now.
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“So again, we’re going to evaluate him, watch the (practice) tape, see how he looked to make sure he’s technically and fundamentally sound, that he’s not favoring anything. That’s the other thing we’re going to be smart about.”
If Newton doesn’t play, backup quarterback Derek Anderson said Friday that he’s ready to go. Anderson said he didn’t have a sense on whether he would be needed.
Newton said Thursday that he was “on pace” to play against the Bucs. But Rivera said he has to make a decision that is in the best interests of Newton’s health and the team.
“There’s some things you can’t measure, and that’s how he’s going to react if he gets hit. There’s some things that we can’t tell,” Rivera said. “So when we make our decision come Sunday morning, it’s going to be based on how we feel he’s done the last couple of days, how he feels in terms of handling what we want to do with the game plan and whether or not we believe he’ll be able to protect himself if he does take a shot. Again, this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
Newton did not miss a game during his first three seasons, and sat out only a handful of snaps because of injury. But he was sidelined for all but the last practice during organized team activities after surgery on his left ankle in March.
Newton sustained a hairline fracture in his ribs when he was kneed in the lower back by New England linebacker Jamie Collins at the end of a 7-yard scramble in an Aug. 22 exhibition. He sat out all of last week and experienced soreness in his ribs after throwing twice last weekend.
Newton missed his first regular-season practice Wednesday and was limited during Thursday’s practice. He was listed as full participation Friday.
During the portion of Friday’s practice that was open to the media, Newton threw about 10 passes into the end zone as the Panthers’ skill-position players worked on the red-zone offense.
Rivera pointed to a play later in practice that illustrated the difficulty in protecting Newton from himself.
“In his typical fashion, we had a play called and he decided to check it and keep the ball, which we don’t want. We want him to go with the play, be smart about what’s going on,” Rivera said. “But he does have that in our repertoire. It’s him.”
Newton again practiced with a protective vest that is bigger than the one he was wearing against the Patriots. Newton said when he lunged forward against the Patriots, Collins’ knee struck him in a “dead spot” in his flak vest.
Rivera said the new vest is “about as good as it’s going to get, unless it gets too bulky and then you’re going to hinder him.”
Anderson has an 18-25 record in 43 career starts, the last of which came in 2010 during his only season with Arizona. Anderson attempted only four passes in his first three seasons with the Panthers, but said he’s been preparing as though he might start against the Bucs.
“Obviously I’ve known about the situation for a long time. Kind of mentally for me, it’s just preparing. If he goes, he goes. If I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go,” Anderson said. “I thought I had a good week of preparation. I’ll finish it (Saturday) and see what happens.”