Scott Fowler

Staggered: QB Cam Newton puts his brain, Carolina’s season at risk in loss to Falcons

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) climbs to one knee after he was hit by Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Deion Jones during a 2-point conversion on Sunday. Newton sustained a concussion on the play.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) climbs to one knee after he was hit by Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Deion Jones during a 2-point conversion on Sunday. Newton sustained a concussion on the play. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Cam Newton blew it Sunday.

The Carolina Panthers quarterback sustained a concussion that he could have and should have avoided on a play that was both infuriating and remarkable. Newton did something he had explicitly said he would never do again. And by doing so he put his own brain – and the Panthers’ season – at extreme risk.

With the Panthers down by 18 points early in the fourth quarter of what would eventually become a 48-33 loss to Atlanta, Newton was trying to run the ball in for a two-point conversion. For once, on an afternoon filled with frustration for Carolina, the play actually worked. A hole opened on the left side. Newton darted through it and looked like he would score easily.

And then he slowed down.

Call it gamesmanship. Or showboating. Or just bad awareness. But if he had stayed at full speed, Newton would have run into the end zone either untouched or only having to absorb a glancing blow.

Instead, by slowing down, he allowed Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones to smash into him with a helmet-to-helmet hit that you could hear in the top row of the stands at the Georgia Dome.

That was the infuriating part – Carolina’s best player got hurt on a play that never should have occurred. Newton had already gotten a taunting penalty in this game. The slowdown looked an awful lot like him trying to taunt somebody again – despite being down by 18.

And here was the remarkable part – while Newton buckled from the hit, he somehow kept his balance, reset himself and dove to successfully reach the ball over the goal line. The conversion, somehow, was good.

Newton’s brain was not.

That play, with 11 minutes, 42 seconds left in the game, would be the last for Newton. He would go to the locker room shortly after that and be diagnosed with a concussion. Because of that, he wasn’t available to talk to the media afterward.

Coach Ron Rivera, though, was asked if Newton could have avoided the hit by simply traveling at full speed into the end zone.

“Probably,” Rivera said, before adding he needed to watch the tape to make sure.

Rivera barely answered questions about Newton’s injury, either. The coach has developed the disturbing habit of not talking to the medical staff before he talks with reporters so he can say “I don’t know” more often.

‘It won’t happen again’

Look, no one ever deserves a concussion, and I would never wish one on anybody. But Newton knows better than this.

Let’s flash back to last December. At New Orleans, Newton was running for the end zone and was about to score – but he slowed down to enjoy the moment. Saints linebacker Michael Mauti leveled him at the 1, knocking him out of bounds. Again, it is a helmet-to-helmet hit.

Newton – who never missed a play in that game and threw five touchdown passes – would later tell the press that he had told a Panthers team doctor he deserved the shot from Mauti.

“I deserved to get hit like that, taking that foot off the gas,” Newton said then. “I was so shocked. The guy just came out of nowhere, it felt like. But it won’t happen again, anytime I get an opportunity to score.”

It won’t happen again.

And yet it did happen.

Less than 10 months later, Newton slowed up again just before the goal line at Atlanta – and got hit again.

Just like in New Orleans, Newton was evaluated for a concussion. That time he didn’t have one (he also used the time in the locker room at New Orleans to take a bathroom break).

This time he did.

Could miss several games

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson, who came in and threw two late touchdown passes but also two interceptions, said the hits at New Orleans last year and at Atlanta this year were “similar, unfortunately.” Anderson also said he saw Newton after the game and said he looked “all right.” But I certainly believe Anderson will start Carolina’s next game on Oct. 10 vs. Tampa Bay.

Newton will have to go through the concussion protocol before he can return. That series of tests kept Luke Kuechly sidelined for three full games in 2015 after he sustained a concussion in the season opener. The Panthers – whose medical staff is already under review by the NFL and the NFL Players Association for its handling of Newton after an enormous hit he took on the potential game-winning drive at Denver in Week 1 – will be very careful with the franchise.

I could easily see a scenario where Anderson starts the next two games before the bye week and Newton takes almost the entire month of October off before returning for the Oct. 30 home game against Arizona. That would put Newton out for three weeks, which was how long it took Kuechly to return.

Maybe it will be earlier than that. I hope it will.

There’s no telling how Newton’s brain will respond to what happened Sunday.

What we do know is that he took an enormous hit he did not have to take. And with that one bad decision by the NFL’s reigning MVP, the Panthers’ entire season might have taken an enormous hit as well.

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