Scott Fowler

Cam Newton may start season opener for Carolina Panthers, but questions remain

Five years ago, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger orchestrated a game-winning drive to beat Arizona in the Super Bowl. He threw the touchdown pass that won it. He racked up 256 yards passing.

And he did all that with at least two fractured ribs.

“Luckily, in the game, I didn’t take any big hits to make ’em hurt,” Roethlisberger told a few days after the game. “But I knew all along there was something wrong. There wouldn’t have been anything they could have done about fractured ribs anyway. It was just suck it up and play.”

That, my friends, is exactly what Cam Newton will do Sept. 7 at Tampa Bay. He’s going to suck it up and play. The only difference is that no one knew about Big Ben’s injury until after the Super Bowl, and everyone knows about Newton’s.

Will Cam start the season opener?

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Newton said.

Newton addressed the media Wednesday for the first time since he got hurt Friday night at New England in one of the worst exhibition losses the Panthers have ever suffered. He claimed his ribs feel “great,” which certainly is an overstatement, but at least the quarterback didn’t look to be in obvious pain like he was a few days ago.

“One thing you know – playing this game, you will get hurt, sooner or later,” Newton said.

Even if you’re Superman, that’s true. I am still more worried about Newton’s ankle than his ribs. He will find a way to throw the ball Sept. 7, I’m sure. But will he find a way to run it?

Just for fun, I watched one of Newton’s most well-known NFL runs earlier this week on YouTube. It was only a 14-yarder, which doesn’t sound like much, on Monday Night Football last year against New England.

But ESPN later determined Newton ran 75.8 yards to pick up those 14. Six Patriots had a shot at him on the play before he finally got tackled. It was sublime. Contrast that with the Newton in the Patriots exhibition last week – even before the injury. He just doesn’t yet have the burst that he had a year ago. He’s throwing the ball OK, but he is going to have to prove all over again that he is still a dual-threat quarterback.

It would help, too, if Newton had a go-to “get down” move when he’s about to get tackled downfield. The “falling-forward-awkwardly” phase should have run its course by now.

Said Panthers coach Ron Rivera Wednesday: “Should he slide? Yeah, I’d like to see him slide. But at the same time, I want him to play the way he plays best.”

Newton at his best is a dazzling mixture of pass and run. He was such a monstrously good runner at Auburn that the statue of him outside Auburn’s stadium shows him running the ball, not throwing it.

It makes complete sense that the Panthers have taken precautions with Newton throughout the offseason. He will miss Thursday night’s exhibition finale at Pittsburgh, which means he will have played in only two of Carolina’s four exhibitions. We really don’t know what he’s going to do on Sept. 7.

We do know this, though – he’s going to play, just like Roethlisberger did in that Super Bowl (which was also at Tampa). It will be Newton’s 50th straight start in a regular-season or playoff game for Carolina.

We all know Newton won’t be 100 percent for the Tampa game. But NFL players rarely are in September. By November, no one is. “This is a physical sport and needs to be played that way,” Newton said.

Newton wants to be this team’s biggest offensive leader. The way he plays through these injuries will go a long way toward determining if he’s there yet.