Scott Fowler

Panthers’ Cam Newton will play Thursday night. But should he?

Confined to the role of a very loud cheerleader for the Carolina Panthers’ first two exhibitions, quarterback Cam Newton (center) is on track to make his preseason debut Thursday at Jacksonville.
Confined to the role of a very loud cheerleader for the Carolina Panthers’ first two exhibitions, quarterback Cam Newton (center) is on track to make his preseason debut Thursday at Jacksonville. AP

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is about to take his first big test of the preseason Thursday night in Jacksonville.

But should he? Would there be anything wrong with sitting him out the entire preseason, keeping him under glass until Sept. 10 for the first game that actually counts?

There would be nothing wrong with that, actually, but Newton has looked healthy enough in practice this week to play. And I think he should play.

You can’t be careful forever in this game. Football is such a fast and violent sport that it would be a shock to the system if Newton stayed off the field entirely until Sept. 10 at San Francisco. Also, if one game of throwing is going to be too much for his arm to handle, it is best to know that on Aug. 24th rather than one quarter into the regular-season opener.

As it so often is for Newton, the big question is timing. He is gifted in many ways, but there are other NFL quarterbacks who naturally make better and quicker decisions than he does in the pocket.

“He’s starting to get it back,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Newton following Tuesday’s practice. “We’re trying to practice fast and create as close as we can the game simulation. ...You can see the timing coming back.”

Newton ‘can’t be replaced’

If Newton is really going to get the ball out of his hands faster, though, repetitions in a live situation like Thursday night are key. Players such as wide receiver Russell Shepard have never caught passes from Newton in a game.

Said Shepard on Tuesday: “Cam is a big reason why I’m here. ...It’s a team sport, but certain players bring a certain element to the game which can’t be replaced. He’s one of those guys. His energy, his style of play, his playmaking ability – both with his legs and his arm – does wonders for this team.”

It can do wonders, for sure, with Newton’s NFL Most Valuable Player award following the 2015 season as exhibit No. 1. But Newton was hurt, harried and humbled for much of 2016. What resulted was a career low in both completion percentage and quarterback rating. “I’m just trying basically to get my swag back,” Newton said in late July.

Now in his seventh season and coming off offseason shoulder surgery on his throwing arm, Newton has an expensive new left tackle in Matt Kalil and an elusive new threat out of the backfield in rookie Christian McCaffrey. In his mind, Newton must marry the idea of getting the ball to his playmakers more quickly with the threat of him taking off and running – a threat that never will go away, he insisted.

The most-remembered quote from Newton’s lone general press availability in the past seven months was when he said in training camp that expecting him to quarterback a team where he never got to run the ball would be like expecting a lion not to roar. “That’s my edge,” Newton said.

On Thursday night, though, it won’t be. I can’t imagine offensive coordinator Mike Shula calling any designed runs for Newton.

Eclipse glasses needed?

Assuming he plays – and the Panthers always could pull him out an hour before the game if his shoulder gets sore in pregame warmups – Newton won’t go all the way into the third quarter. That is usually Rivera’s plan for his starters in exhibition No. 3, and then he sits everybody significant in exhibition No. 4. But to limit Newton’s exposure Thursday, I would guess that he gets one full quarter and possibly 1-2 more possessions in the second quarter before giving way to backup Derek Anderson.

Exhibitions are generally so insignificant it is hard to remember who won the game a week later. This one, though, should tip the Panthers’ cards a bit as to how the 2017 season will go.

The range is severe. The Panthers could be a 5-11 team, or their future could be bright enough that your eclipse glasses might be required once again for home games.

While you could make the argument that middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the Panthers’ best player, Newton remains its most important one. It’s time to see what will happen when all of the key offensive guys are playing together -- rookie Curtis Samuel is supposed to make his 2017 debut Thursday night, too – and there are still 17 days of recovery time available before the first real game.

The Panthers have assembled better talent around their quarterback on offense.

But Newton is the center of the Panthers’ wheel. And even if the spokes are stronger, that means very little if the center cannot hold. It’s time to find out if it will.