Scott Fowler

Panthers QB Cam Newton hasn’t been 100 percent in forever. Can he trust this feeling?

Cam Newton looks healthy. He feels healthy. And he sounds like he’s not yet quite sure how much he can trust that feeling.

During the most telling part of Newton’s first press conference with the local media since December, the Carolina Panthers quarterback said Thursday that “a lot of times, you’ve just got to get out of your own head.”

Newton was speaking about his own injuries. He had surgery on his throwing shoulder in March 2017 and again in January of this year. For much of the past three years, the question “How’s Cam doing?” has been the primary topic of conversation for everyone in black and blue.

Newton’s pain tolerance is not in question. Sometimes he’s played well past the point of when he was doing anybody any good, including himself, as in that excruciating Monday night game against New Orleans last December. Newton has long been able to take one hit, or 10, or 100, and get up one more time.

But there are so many questions about an NFL quarterback entering his ninth season, at age 30, on a team that hasn’t won the NFC South since 2015.

“When you’re hurt for so long you tell yourself, ‘Just do it. Just do it!’” Newton said. “And as football players, our mantra is just big macho men, going down the field, never show signs of weakness, never show that you’re hurt. And you’re doing it, but you’re not necessarily making things better.

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“We do hurt. We do have pain. And pain for me may be different than pain for somebody else. But where I’m at now, I may feel certain things and my (brain) may say, ‘You’re hurt.’ But you’re really not hurt. Because you’ve been hurt for so long, you don’t know what 100 percent feels like.”

You don’t know what 100 percent feels like.

You know that feeling, right? Maybe you were sick for a long time, and then finally you get well. But you wonder: Is this real? What’s going to happen to me next?

This is where I think Newton is at the moment.

He said he feels no limitations on his shoulder, and he has uncorked enough throws of 45-50 yards in Spartanburg that it’s obvious the deep ball is again a part of his game. The first one of those came in the Panthers’ first training camp practice on July 25th. Everyone who was watching that ball land in the arms of Curtis Samuel smiled.

“I think it was a sigh of relief for a lot of people because I wasn’t right at the end of the (2018) season,” Newton said of that pass. “And it was even a sigh of relief for myself as well, being able to throw like that again.”

‘Oh, Cam’s back’

And yet Newton kept using the words “process” and “work in progress” Thursday. He doesn’t want anyone to think he’s hurt anymore, but he also understands that he’s not a 22-year-old, devil-may-care rookie anymore, either. He won’t know how all of this will go until the real games start Sept. 8, and he is being chased around by Aaron Donald and the L.A. Rams.

“I don’t want people to just assume, ‘Oh, Cam’s back,’” Newton said. “I’m doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that I’m able to practice.”

Newton didn’t practice Thursday – he was on the field but had what coach Ron Rivera said was a scheduled day off, along with a number of other Carolina veterans. The Panthers had their other three quarterbacks throw every significant pass, and this cautiousness will undoubtedly extend into the preseason.

If Newton plays only two quarters in this entire preseason it won’t be surprising, even though when I asked Rivera Thursday if he believes Newton is 100 percent, the coach said “most certainly.”

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“He’s moving very comfortably,” Rivera explained. “He’s very smooth in his movements. You don’t see him favoring anything. you don’t see him wincing or anything like that. You don’t see him lumbering. You see an athletic, moving player.”

There are differences, though. Newton is trying to incorporate a more compact throwing style, for one.

Also, for years, Newton loved tormenting and getting tormented by a brash defensive player at training camp to spice up the workouts. It was cornerback Josh Norman sometimes, and once that ended up in a fight. It was linebacker Thomas Davis most of the time, but now Davis plays for the Los Angeles Chargers.

Luke Kuechly trash-talks every now and then, but not to become a regular foil for Newton. Veteran Gerald McCoy “don’t really talk in practice,” Newton said. So when asked why he’s been somewhat quieter in practices, Newton cracked: “Half of it, man, is ain’t nobody talking to me.”

‘We don’t want to tone down Cam’

Newton certainly hasn’t turned down his volume all the way, but he seems to have gone from an 11 to about an 8. Safety Tre Boston, who played for Carolina from 2014-16 and rejoined the team Wednesday, has already noticed.

“What I’ve heard this year is that this training camp so far is a little bit more focused,” Boston said. “A little less talking. ... We don’t want to tone down Cam or who he is. But when he’s a focused Cam, we all know what Cam Newton can do.”

Yes, we do. We’ve watched Newton be good. We’ve watched him be the very best player in the NFL. We’ve watched him be bad. And in 2019, as always, he holds the biggest key to this Panthers season. If the quarterback can stay relatively healthy through 16 games — not 100 percent, because that’s unrealistic, but let’s say 80 percent — then the Panthers have a chance to do great things.

If he gets hurt again, they won’t.

For now, the word is good. But it’s easy in the NFL to feel good in early August. Newton has been around long enough now to know how different August is from late December.

Said Newton: “I just want to win, man….. We’re past due for South Carolina and North Carolina to have something to brag about…. We want this division back.”

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”