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Inside the Panthers: Playing Cam Newton is too big of a risk right now

After all the breathless tweets and blogs this week addressing whether Cam Newton would play Sunday against Tampa Bay, maybe everyone was asking the wrong question:

Should Newton play against the Bucs?

Newton clearly wants to play. Besides his muscular, tight end-like frame and cannon of a right arm, two of Newton’s strongest attributes are his competitive drive and his durability. Through his first three seasons, Newton never missed a single practice, much less a game.

But with Newton coming off not one, but two injuries, do the Panthers really want to rush their franchise quarterback into a Week 1 game with cracked ribs and a surgically repaired ankle at the risk of not having him for some or all of the remaining 15 games?

Newton is listed as questionable and remains a game-day decision.

But Panthers coach Ron Rivera has given indications he prefers Newton sit this one out.

Each time Rivera discussed Newton’s status this week, he would temper any talk of progress with a reminder that an NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint. Rivera said he had to act in the best interest of Newton’s health and the team.

So sit him.

Give Newton’s ribs another week to heal and start Derek Anderson, who’s had more work with the starting receivers than Newton. Before learning the extent of Newton’s injury, Rivera said he wanted to play him in the exhibition finale at Pittsburgh because the timing between Newton and the remade receiving corps was so out of sync.

Think it’s any better now that Newton’s missed two weeks of practice?

While Newton has been receiving treatment, doing extra stretching and getting the right fit on his new flak vest, Anderson – at least until Friday – was taking the reps with the first-team offense. As many snaps as Anderson has taken since June, the timing between him and the wideouts ought to tick like a Swiss watch.

“D.A.’s timing is very good. Cam’s timing is very good,” Rivera said. “Again, it’s still a work in progress, though, because D.A. has had more reps with those guys, all the way back in the OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamp through training camp to now.”

This is not like 2010 when the Panthers had to throw an overmatched Jimmy Clausen to the wolves as a rookie when Matt Moore was injured. Anderson has started 43 career games and went to a Pro Bowl before settling into his role as Newton’s backup.

Anderson can’t run the zone read, but neither can Newton at this point. Rivera said the game plan would not change with Anderson.

“I still do everything he does, with the exception of one or two little things,” Anderson said. “But for the most part everything’s exactly the same, which is fun.”

What would not be fun would be Newton dealing with a rib injury for another month or more. And that’s the chance the Panthers would take by starting Newton against the Bucs’ formidable defensive line, which could give Carolina’s rebuilt offensive line fits.

The Panthers can manage Newton’s pain. The custom flak jacket will help, but it’s not fool-proof, as Newton can attest.

A pain-killing injection would mask the pain, giving Newton a false sense of invincibility that could lead to him aggravating the hairline fracture. And that’s just his ribs.

There’s a long list of athletes from every sport who’ve sustained additional injuries trying to play hurt (see Griffin III, Robert).

Wesley Walls is another.

The former Panthers tight end dislocated a rib against New Orleans in 2000, but received injections so he could play the next two games. Despite the numbing effect of the pain-killer, Walls said he was still cognizant of the rib injury and tried to avoid direct shots on it.

After catching a pass against Atlanta two weeks after his initial injury, Walls lowered his right shoulder to protect his ribs when a Falcons defender slammed into his left leg, tearing two of Walls’ knee ligaments and ending his season.

Walls said Saturday he’s certain the knee injury occurred because he was overcompensating to save his ribs.

Newton is a proud competitor who wants to be on the field Sunday. He’ll try to convince Rivera and athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion he’s good to go.

It’s possible Newton starts against the Bucs, plays well and avoids further injury. It’s also possible he doesn’t, and that’s too big of a risk to take with the team’s most valuable player.