Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers’ choices: Sit Cam Newton until he’s healthy, or let him be Cam

Cam Newton – drop-back quarterback.

That’s what he was Sunday night against Pittsburgh, and that looks like what he’s going to be for the foreseeable future. He’s not completely healthy, and the Carolina Panthers are trying desperately to play him and protect him at the same time.

You can’t do both – especially not with this offensive line.

So it is time for the Panthers to do one of two things.

They either need to sit Newton down for the game at Baltimore on Sunday for his own good so he can have a full week to heal those ribs and that ankle and whatever else is hurting.

Or, if he is truly healthy enough to play, they are going to have to let Newton play. This would be my preferred choice, but in this scenario, he is going to have to be able to run the ball four to six times per game and put that element back into an offense that badly needs every spark it can get.

If that sounds too dangerous, well, there’s your answer as to which choice it should be. Bring on Derek Anderson until No. 1 can be a dual-threat quarterback again.

Newton ran the ball a career-low two times against Pittsburgh in Carolina’s 37-19 loss. He gained 7 yards on two unplanned scrambles and took a monstrous hit on the sideline on one of them.

Was he simply not wanting to run?

Said Newton after the game: “My main thing going into each and every game is trying to execute the game plan. It wasn’t asked of me to run.”

Think about that for a second. The Panthers quarterback who ran for 28 touchdowns in his first three seasons – at least three times more rushing TDs than any other NFL quarterback during that time period – never kept the ball on a designed run play Sunday night.

Why?

“The obvious (reason) is that he takes shots,” coach Ron Rivera said. “What we want to do this year is eliminate those or limit them. Again, it’s the way he plays. And right now, he’s not quite where we need him (as a runner).”

Newton is actually throwing the ball very well for 2-1 Carolina. He has played in two games and has yet to be intercepted.

“The disappointing thing about this,” Rivera said Monday, “is he was 24 for 35 for 250 yards, one touchdown and a quarterback rating of 98.5. If you tell me that’s what he’s going to average, I’d take it every day of the week.”

That passing performance should be winning football, Rivera was saying. But the Panthers didn’t play well enough around Newton, not by a long shot. Stuck in a collapsing pocket, Newton was a sitting duck too often for a brutal Pittsburgh rush that sacked him three times and blasted him a half-dozen more.

Sometimes, he could have protected himself better if he had been running.

The same strategy worked against Detroit on Sept. 14, but the Panthers protected Newton better that day, and the defense was tremendous.

This “Cam is a drop-back quarterback” strategy won’t work for the long run in 2014, though.

You can’t entirely take away Newton’s legs and win – not with this team. Not unless you’re going to have better blocking and better running from the backs.

But all the running backs are hurt. The offensive line has not come together. There’s an obvious need for a personnel upgrade at several positions.

The rushing part of Carolina’s offense is in a sorry situation that isn’t going to improve much until the next NFL draft, despite the enormous amount of money that was invested in the tailback position.

All that is water under the Marty Hurney bridge, though. Right now the Panthers have to find a way to make defenses respect the running game at least a little so that Newton doesn’t have a target painted on his flak jacket on every play.

“You want to limit his exposure,” Rivera said.

That’s understandable. Newton took more hits than any other quarterback in the NFL over the past three years, according to ESPN – 467 altogether; no other QB was hit more than 230 times. It’s just the way he plays. He holds the ball. He hates to give up and throw the ball away. He doesn’t slide. He fights for every yard.

Newton makes a lot of positive plays because of that style. It’s why he has played in two Pro Bowls in only three NFL seasons.

He is not Tom Brady. He’s not Drew Brees. He’s not Peyton Manning. He is a dazzling talent who doesn’t need to try to become something he is not.

What Newton needs is to be able to play the way he plays. If the Panthers aren’t willing to let him do that because his injuries scare them too much, that’s fine. But it’s time to sit him down until he can.

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