Cam Newton walked into his press conference late Friday night with a shiner.
His left eye was rapidly turning into a black eye, thanks to Newton’s first-quarter scramble that morphed into a nasty crash landing.
“Oh my God, I know I look ugly,” Newton said.
We have all seen Newton leap before — but usually it is in a game that matters, with a touchdown at stake.
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This time, it was on the seventh snap of a preseason game — one in which the Panthers would eventually beat New England, 25-14 — with the ball close to midfield. The outcome of the play was not going to matter a bit — unless Newton got hurt.
And, for a few minutes, it appeared that he did.
Newton said he was “playing too nice” during the run, trying to avoid much contact while also managing to run for a first down on third and 9. Then a Patriots player came at him low and Newton, instinctively, went high. In midair, he knew was in trouble.
Said Newton: “I’m like, ‘I want to get a first down but I want to bring this plane in as smoothly as possible.’”
Then, of his head-first landing: “It could have been better. … There were a lot of malfunctionings going on from the cockpit. Buttons was getting stuck. Oh my goodness. It was bad. It was real bad.”
It certainly wasn’t Newton’s most graceful moment. This was much more Clark Kent than Superman. We’ve seen him turn full somersaults in the air before and land on his back, popping up like a gymnast. This time he basically took a high dive into the ground, landing awkwardly on his head and neck as the crowd gasped.
The impact caused Newton to fumble the ball. Three Patriots were almost on top of it, but somehow Christian McCaffrey ended up with it, and Carolina did gain 10 yards and a first down.
Newton did get up pretty quickly, but then seemed to think better of it and walked slowly to the sideline before kneeling down. Ultimately, officials called for an injury timeout, as Newton took his helmet off and went under the collapsible blue tent to get checked.
“The helmet came down on my eye,” Newton said later. “So I’m not feeling the best right now.”
Doctors tested Newton for a concussion, but the Panthers said he didn’t have one. The quarterback just kept telling everyone that his eye hurt — that it felt like someone had poked him in it. Four plays later, he would check back into the game.
A crowd that had gasped in dismay now cheered in relief, feeling collectively like it had just narrowly avoided a car wreck before the season even started.
“I always worry about him, but that’s him,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of Newton and the play. “He plays to win and I’d much rather he didn’t (in the preseason). But again, he’s going to give us all he has.”
Had Newton ever had a black eye like that before?
“Yeah,” he said, smiling, “back in middle school, I had one of these. But you should have seen the other person, what they had — I’m just teasing!”
Newton would end up playing the rest of the first half and playing well. He completed 11-of-17 passes for 142 yards and left with Carolina holding a 9-3 lead. Taylor Heinicke came in for the start of the third quarter, and it’s safe to say we won’t see Newton again until Sept. 9 in the regular-season opener against Dallas. No way he plays next week in the useless final preseason game.
And assuming he doesn’t, Newton completed 68.4 percent of his passes in the preseason — right in the high 60s range that he and offensive coordinator Norv Turner would love to sustain. He didn’t get the Panthers in the end zone as much as he would like. His final preseason numbers will include one touchdown, one interception and one black eye.
Overall, you’d have to judge Newton’s preseason a success. Still, if he had hit the ground just a little differently on that ill-advised leap, it would have all been different.
Longtime Panthers fans might remember that Carolina was playing New England — once again in the third preseason game — in August 2014. New England’s Jamie Collins broke Newton’s rib on a tackle, even though the quarterback was wearing a flak jacket. That injury ultimately meant Newton had to miss the season opener.
This time Carolina’s most essential player got his work in, got airborne, got a little lucky, and got done. Let’s hope the next leap he makes, though, has a little more at stake.
In the meantime, Newton had a plan for the Panthers’ off day on Saturday.
“I’m just going to find a lot of ice,” the quarterback said.