Scott Fowler

If Cam Newton’s foot injury is serious, the Panthers’ entire season is in peril

The Carolina Panthers’ entire 2019 season was thrown into doubt late in the first quarter Thursday night when quarterback Cam Newton went down in a heap in a preseason game at New England.

This was the Panthers’ nightmare threatening to come to life — their franchise quarterback hurt, again, before he ever threw a regular-season pass.

The play — only Newton’s 11th of the game, in his first action of the preseason — ended in an awkward-looking sack following a scramble. The team quickly announced he had a foot injury and would not return, minutes after the quarterback walked off the field under his own power, surrounded by medical personnel. He would eventually leave the stadium in a walking boot with an injury of undetermined seriousness. The Panthers’ 10-3 loss to New England was rendered an afterthought.

“He’s in a walking boot, that’s all I can tell you,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. And, later: “He got sacked, and that’s about all I saw.”

Before that, Newton had thrown six passes in the game’s first 11 minutes and looked like himself. His arm seemed fine in limited work. He bounced around, full of energy, during pregame warmups.

But then came the play, in which Newton darted around in the pocket, no one came open, and his lower left leg was eventually wrapped up by Patriots’ defensive lineman Adam Butler. Newton went down. He then tossed the ball to the official and jogged off the field a little gimpy. On the sideline, sitting down, he was obviously in pain and grimacing as a team doctor checked his left foot from all angles.

Carolina Panthers medical personnel examine quarterback Cam Newton behind the team’s bench after he injured his left foot during the first quarter against New England Thursday night. It was the first time Newton had faced a live defense since December 2018. Jeff Siner

Newton has taken many hits harder than that one from Butler, even if you only count those in preseason. He broke a rib on this same artificial-turf field at Gillette Stadium in 2014, and last year in an exhibition game he landed on his head and missed four plays.

But although this didn’t look terrible — and maybe it won’t be, and the Panthers were whispering unofficially late Thursday night they didn’t think it would be — foot injuries don’t have to look bad initially to turn out poorly. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and many other NFL players could tell you that.

Hopefully, that’s not what happened here. Hopefully the Panthers were just being very careful and in a few days Newton will be throwing again in practice. (Newton wasn’t available to talk after the game, having already left the Panthers locker room before the game ended).

But we also may not know the answers to these two questions for days or even a couple of weeks:

1. Will Newton be well enough to start Sept. 8 in the home opener vs. the L.A. Rams?

2. If he can’t, is Kyle Allen ready to play? Or in that case, should the Panthers sign another quarterback like Colin Kaepernick as an alternative (a route that Panthers safety Eric Reid said late Thursday that he would advocate if -- and only if -- Newton’s injury is significant).

Fans look over the railing at Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton as he heads to the locker room under his own power after injuring his left foot during the first quarter Thursday. Jeff Siner

A play like this sack was exactly the reason I advocated two weeks ago in this space for Newton not to play a single snap in this preseason. The Panthers already sat him out for the first and second preseason games and they always sit him out for the fourth one. Why not just make it a clean sweep and sit him for the third one, too?

Said Panthers Luke Kuechly, who played about one quarter this entire preseason: “I think it’s a delicate balance between making sure that your players are ready to go for the regular season, but also that they get enough reps at game speed.”

Of course, you could argue that Tom Brady is the best quarterback of all time and he, like Newton, played exactly three offensive series Thursday night. I would argue that Brady — who led a touchdown drive on his third series for the only points of the first half — shouldn’t have been playing, either. Some quarterbacks don’t -- Aaron Rodgers hasn’t taken a snap this preseason, for instance.

But even when he does play, Brady plays a lower-risk sort of game — he doesn’t hold the ball long, and he mostly just throws the ball out of bounds and resets if he gets into trouble.

I’m not blaming anyone for this injury.

Newton didn’t mean to get hurt; he was just trying to make a play. Head coach Ron Rivera certainly didn’t want his star quarterback hurt; he was just trying to get him a few snaps before the season opener. The Patriots weren’t trying to hurt Newton, either; they are paid to sack the quarterback, and the hits that Newton took on the play were legal and didn’t draw any flags.

But the bottom line is that it happened -- although we don’t know the full extent of “it” yet. And now the Panthers have to deal with exactly the sort of uncertainty they didn’t want entering their 25th season.

Cam Newton is hurt, again — and no one knows exactly what will come next.

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 hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.