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Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton figured surgery wouldn’t be necessary

For his first three NFL seasons, Cam Newton often looked indestructible.

At 6-5 and 245 pounds, Newton is a quarterback in a tight end’s body.

If Steve Smith was the Panthers’ Bentley, Newton is their GMC Denali (Newton has a sponsorship deal with GMC) with a 6.2-liter V8 engine – big, powerful and not a vehicle you’d want to trade paint with.

But Newton’s brawn is not the only reason he’s started all 48 games he’s played (49 counting the playoff loss to San Francisco) since the Panthers picked him No. 1 overall in 2011.

The guy’s tough.

The immediate reaction among the armchair surgeons when news of Newton’s ankle surgery broke last week was: Why didn’t he get it done right after the season?

Because Newton waited until mid-March to have the surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle – after his Caribbean vacation during Auburn’s spring break – he is expected to miss all of the Panthers’ organized team activities during his four-month recovery.

Much hand-wringing on Twitter ensued after the Panthers announced Newton’s timetable.

Certainly, it would have been good for Newton to spend those few weeks of OTAs in the spring tossing balls to newcomers Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood and might-as-well-be-newbies Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.

But it’s more important that Newton be healthy in July when training camp begins in Spartanburg. Assuming he has no setbacks, Newton will have plenty of time to connect with his new receivers.

So why didn’t Newton have the surgery immediately after the season-ending loss to the 49ers, when he re-injured the ankle he’d “nicked” in Week 15 against New Orleans?

For the same reason he’s only missed a handful of snaps due to injury as a Panther: He thought the pain would dissipate during the offseason and he’d be able to play through it without requiring surgery.

Newton has been criticized for his passing accuracy, sideline and postgame demeanor and leadership skills, and in many cases it was well deserved.

But he’s never been called soft.

We’ve watched Newton get drilled from behind by angry, 280-pound defensive ends over the past three years. Each time Newton’s picked himself up – sometimes more slowly than others – and lined up behind center for the next play.

Former Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross had the worst view of anyone for many of those blindside shots, since they often were delivered by the guy Gross was assigned to block.

Several times during his last couple of years with the Panthers, Gross marveled over the toughness Newton displayed on some of those bone-jarring hits. With the Panthers searching for Gross’ successor, there could be even more of those in Newton’s future.

None of this is meant to downplay the significance of Newton’s ankle surgery. For a quarterback whose mobility is a big part of his arsenal, a foot or ankle injury bears close watching.

But if Newton or the Panthers thought he needed surgery immediately after the season, they would have done it.

And if there comes a time when Newton fails to answer the bell because of a big hit or foot injury, it won’t be for a lack of toughness.

3 Extra Points on the Panthers

• Smart move by newly signed wideout Jerricho Cotchery to refrain from asking for No. 89, Smith’s old number and the one worn by Cotchery for nine of his 10 NFL seasons. It’s going to take Panthers’ fans some time to get over the loss of Smith. No need for Cotchery to pick at the scab. Guessing he’ll take 82, his number at N.C. State.

• Speaking of Smith, he’s continued to take the high road since signing with Baltimore. While Smith has alluded in interviews to his strained relationship with general manager Dave Gettleman, he’s not taken any shots. I’m told receivers coach Ricky Proehl talked to Smith, his former teammate, about avoiding a public confrontation. Smith – as he wrote in the Observer ad he ran Saturday to thank fans – wants to return to Charlotte and retire as a Panther. Getting into a public spat with the front office wouldn’t help.

• The Panthers were much more active during the second week of free agency, filling holes at receiver (Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood), cornerback (Antoine Cason) and safety (Roman Harper). They also brought in quarterback Joe Webb to provide depth and competition during OTAs while Newton is out. Gettleman has yet to sign a free agent tackle. The first wave of tackles came at a high price, and the pickings are slim among the remaining inventory (newly elected union president Eric Winston, Ryan Harris). Paging Byron Bell to the left side of the line?

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