Luke DeCock

This season will be as good as the Ron Rivera-Cam Newton Panthers ever get

Cam Newton attends first practice after foot injury

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton attended his first practice, doing stretching exercises and motion drills, after spraining his foot in the third preseason game at the New England Patriots.
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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton attended his first practice, doing stretching exercises and motion drills, after spraining his foot in the third preseason game at the New England Patriots.

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There are excuses everywhere, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find them. Multiple Cam Newton joints in various states of disrepair. Holes in the roster that may or may not have been plugged. A kicker who may or may not be able to kick. A star linebacker with a history of concussions.

For all that, and for how much everything about the Carolina Panthers hangs on Newton’s health, the reality is none of that matters. For this regime, this iteration of the Newton-Ron Rivera-Luke Kuechly Panthers, this is as good as it is going to get.

There are no excuses this season. If it’s going to work, it’s going to work now. And if not, there’s a new owner who has made it abundantly clear he is not satisfied with half measures.

The question isn’t why, but why not?

Newton is banged up already. But the ideal of Newton in pristine health is unrealistic given the game he plays and the way he plays it. His shoulder may not be 100 percent, his ankle may be wobbly, but there’s always going to be something. There are some hard miles there, and they take a toll.

But so what? Even at some percentage of his full ability, as long as his arm is strong enough to make the throws an NFL quarterback has to make, Newton remains a dynamic force in and out of the pocket, a unique threat. There still may not be enough of the true weapons he needs at receiver, but there are at least capable players there, and playmakers at other positions like Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey make up for a lot of that.

If the offensive line holds up, there’s no reason the Panthers can’t be a functional, competent and dangerous offense. Maybe not great. But good enough. Pair that with a defense that got a pass-rushing boost in the draft and the ingredients are there for a successful season. Just not a guarantee.

With the division in flux — the Saints getting older, Tampa starting over with a new coach, and the regrouping Falcons — the stars aren’t exactly aligned for the Panthers, but they’re not crossed, either. There’s an opening here, and it won’t take everything going right. Just most things.

And if not, David Tepper doesn’t seem like the kind of owner to sit and wait patiently for things to get better. Need a practice bubble? Build one. A new practice facility? Get the taxpayers of South Carolina to chip in $115 million. An MLS franchise? He shoved Raleigh out of the way like a fullback clearing a lane to get to the front of the line. He’ll get his state-of-the-art new stadium with a retractable roof eventually, it’s just a question of how much of it he pays for himself.

All of that exerts even more pressure than usual to make these Panthers work, because if this doesn’t, there may be a lot of new sheriffs in town shaking things up.

It’s a team and a franchise at a crossroads, on the verge of a complete reappraisal if things don’t work.

But they can work. They have worked in the past, when Newton is healthy.

There are no excuses for this team. Its time has come, one way or another.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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