Scott Fowler

So the Panthers benched Cam Newton for not wearing a tie, but not for a shoulder injury?

Although Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton sustained a partially torn rotator cuff against San Diego on Dec. 11, 2016, he was all smiles after the game when speaking to the media.
Although Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton sustained a partially torn rotator cuff against San Diego on Dec. 11, 2016, he was all smiles after the game when speaking to the media. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

It turns out that during the 2016 season the Carolina Panthers benched Cam Newton for not wearing a tie, but that the quarterback never missed a snap after partially tearing the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.

The Panthers revealed Tuesday that Newton will have surgery on his throwing shoulder on March 30 in Charlotte to repair an injury he sustained Dec. 11 in a home game against San Diego. The plan is for Newton to be healthy by the time training camp rolls around in late July.

But I will take that plan with a grain of salt, in part because the original plan was for Newton to rehab his shoulder with some R&R this offseason. Instead, after he rested the shoulder and started throwing again, things went south.

Said Ryan Vermillion, the team’s head athletic trainer, to the Panthers’ team website while discussing Newton’s offseason: “As we worked to advance him into the next stage – the strengthening stage, the throwing stage – he started to have an increase in his pain level and started having pain while throwing. As a result, Dr. Pat Connor (the Panthers’ head team physician) felt the most prudent procedure would be to arthroscopically repair the shoulder.”

Obviously, this is not ideal. If Newton had had the surgery in mid-January, he would be two months into his rehab by now.

It is also not a crushing blow. Many NFL quarterbacks have recovered from rotator cuff surgery and played well. Drew Brees had his rotator cuff repaired more than a decade ago, as well as a more serious shoulder problem, and still plays at an elite level.

But what I wonder is how much risk the Panthers were taking when they allowed Newton to play in those final three games of 2016? Don’t tell me there was no risk, because there’s a risk every time you step on the field.

I know Newton is a very tough guy and that he never uses injuries as an excuse and always wants to play.

That ultimately doesn’t matter, though. The Panthers obviously could have held Newton out if they wanted to. And remember, they were 5-8 by the time of those final three games and all but out of the playoff race.

It is also not unprecedented for a quarterback to play with a partial rotator cuff tear. Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre are among the players who have done so.

Floaters in the finale

Newton looked the least like himself in Carolina’s final game of the season on Jan. 1 at Tampa Bay. He floated balls that he normally zips, and his lack of shoulder strength was definitely a problem in a game in which he threw three interceptions. He also nearly led a last-second comeback. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera immediately after the game applauded Newton gutting it out.

“I thought Cam Newton was about as courageous as it gets,” Rivera said that day, admitting that he tried to take Newton out of the game but was talked into letting him stay in by the quarterback himself. “He didn’t want to come out. He tried to make some throws that he probably shouldn’t have.”

Rivera said at the time that Newton’s issue with the shoulder was pain management and not possible long-term damage.

Newton, for his part, said right after that game: “They asked me could I go. I said I could and that was the end of it.”

When asked after the game what he planned for his shoulder and his offseason, the quarterback said: “Rest, a lot of rest. For me, I think me and football have a love-hate relationship and we’re not on good terms right now. I’m just going to leave her alone for a while.”

Time to be cautious

Look, it’s silly to think the Panthers are going to put Newton out there – ever – if they think he’s going to risk serious injury. He is their most important investment, as well as their most expensive one. They obviously believed in those final three games that it was only a pain management issue and that the tear wouldn’t get worse. (It is also only fair to note that the Panthers were ultra-cautious with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly’s concussion during the same time period).

But it is also true that the Panthers were not at all forthcoming about Newton’s partial tear. Rivera said Newton’s MRI in mid-December after he injured his shoulder against San Diego showed no problems. Yet the team said on its website Tuesday that the MRI revealed a partially torn rotator cuff.

“As a result of the MRI, we modified all of Cam’s work in the weight room and on the field for the final three weeks of the season,” Vermillion said.

Should the team have also modified his playing time? I think so, but I’m no doctor.

Obviously, sitting Newton out because he didn’t wear a tie when it was mandated on a team flight – he was held out for the opening series Dec. 4 at Seattle – was a totally different situation. It is ironic, though.

All I can say now is be careful. Be really careful.

Really, what does it matter if Newton is throwing strikes on the first day of training camp or not? From a football standpoint, all that matters is keeping the man with the golden arm healthy once the games begin in September.

This “scope” surgery is a setback. Ultimately, it should be a minor one.

But as we have seen just from the events of these past few months, right now with Newton’s throwing shoulder you cannot be totally sure what is going to happen next. And that’s a little scary.

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