The most important question of August for the Carolina Panthers now lingers into September, and we came nowhere close to finding the answer between the raindrops at Bank of America Stadium Thursday night.
Carolina and Pittsburgh sloshed through the NFL’s annual bow to irrelevance Thursday. The fourth exhibition was attended by many empty and damp seats as well as about 30,000 hardy souls, around half of whom seemed to be swinging a Steelers-issued Terrible Towel and went home happy on Pittsburgh’s last-second, 17-14 win.
But the man the fortunes of the 2017 Panthers most depend upon was on the sidelines, in uniform but not playing.
Quarterback Cam Newton is as ready to turn the page on August as anyone in Charlotte. After a promising start to training camp in late July, he spent much of August waiting around, or else throwing gently to a trainer. He ultimately sat out every Carolina Panthers drive but one in four preseason games.
Certainly Newton wasn’t going to play Thursday night, when Pittsburgh also benched quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of its stars and the two teams again provided a fine example of why the NFL needs to play two exhibition games instead of four.
But the question of “Is Cam ready?” won’t really be answered until Sept. 10 on the West Coast, when Newton revisits the stadium in which he lost the Super Bowl 19 months ago and tries to launch a new chapter at San Francisco.
What the Panthers did on the field Thursday night after benching all their starters – the early interception from linebacker David Mayo, Fozzy Whittaker’s 4-yard TD run, the 1-yard run by Pittsburgh quarterback Joshua Dobbs with two seconds left to win the game – will be quickly forgotten. What lingers, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, is Newton’s shoulder.
In that lone drive Newton did participate in on Aug. 24, he threw two short passes, completed both – one for a touchdown – and then departed. We still don’t know how healthy that arm is after a partial rotator cuff surgery in late March that everyone wishes in retrospect could have happened in mid-January, although Newton proclaimed after that game he was “ready to go.”
“You really won’t know ’til the opener,” head coach Ron Rivera said this week about Newton’s status. “Just the way it is.”
And that’s true. Nothing we saw Thursday night altered the fact that a healthy Newton vs. a “trying-to-gut-it-out-with-a-sore-arm” Newton may mean the difference between 11-5 and 6-10.
Watching Newton in practice over the past five weeks has been entertaining, partly because Newton has such a big personality and game and partly because you never know where the ball is going to go.
On one day, when he’s letting an occasional big throw rip and the timing is right, Newton will look just as good as he did in 2015. On other days, he looks rusty and indecisive.
Newton’s situation is still a lot better than, say, the quandary that Indianapolis has with Andrew Luck. Luck had his own throwing-shoulder surgery, in mid-January, and still hasn’t even practiced. It seems a given now that Luck will miss some regular-season games this season.
So it could be worse. But it could be better, too – this has hardly been ideal preparation for a quarterback who is trying to evolve as he enters his seventh season.
The most animated Newton got Thursday night was when Joe Webb threw a deep pass to Kaelin Clay, who laid out for a 47-yard diving catch, and then again at the end of the game when the Panthers’ third-stringers were trying unsuccessfully to stop Pittsburgh’s third-stringers from scoring the game-winning touchdown.
We’ve seen Newton in that role before – he’s a great cheerleader for his teammates on the sideline.
But now we need to see him do what he is paid so well to do.
Now Cam needs to play.