Carolina Panthers

Panthers mailbag: Worried about Cam Newton? A closer look at his situation and future

After Cam Newton’s two underwhelming performances to start the 2019 NFL season, everyone has plenty of questions about the Panthers’ quarterback.

Newton hasn’t scored a touchdown — rushing or passing — in his last four games dating back to 2018. Considering that before this streak he’d never had back-to-back games without a touchdown, it’s not surprising that many readers want to know: What’s the deal with Cam?

There’s no easy answer. This is a complex situation, one that has long-term implications on the NFL and this franchise. That means we need more thorough explanations for why No. 1 has struggled, how (and if) he can get back to form, and what options Carolina has moving forward:

Do you think it’s too early to write off Cam Newton? New motion, new pieces on the offensive line, lots of time missed — shouldn’t it be expected that he is still working his way back?

This is what the Panthers would like you to believe about Newton, and there is some truth to it. Emphasis on “some.”

After undergoing arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January, Newton didn’t fully begin participating in practices until training camp in late July. He threw some at mandatory minicamp in mid-June, but that was primarily to stationary targets at short distances. He then took periodic and predetermined rest days throughout training camp, and only played three series in four preseason games. A mid-left foot sprain sustained in the team’s third preseason game against New England also held him out for several practices.

Newton has missed time. Coach Ron Rivera said this week that Newton’s chemistry with receivers was off somewhat due to having missed about 10 practices with the foot sprain. But is it fair to blame Newton’s accuracy issues, after eight NFL seasons and 125 games played, on a few missed practices at the end of the preseason?

Probably not.

The truth of the matter is that Newton hasn’t played with near the same efficiency in two games this year that he did in the first half of 2018. Newton set a career-high in completion percentage (67.9 percent) in 2018 in his first year working with offensive coordinator Norv Turner, but that percentage this season is on track to be his lowest ever. Newton’s efficiency as a passer is historically tied to him running the ball, which he isn’t doing.

Cam throwing 50 times makes me believe his shoulder is fine. But him not sneaking it once on three fourth-and-1 situations has me concerned about his foot. Should fans worry more about his foot than his shoulder?

To answer the question as it is written, no.

But if I’m a Panthers fan right now, I’m concerned with both.

That Newton threw 50 times is certainly an encouraging sign regarding his shoulder. That he completed a number of passes deeper than 40 yards is also encouraging about his arm strength. But neither of those things means his shoulder is good to go in the long term, and that’s something we — and the team — just can’t know. No one can see the future where Newton is potentially still throwing that many times or that deep in November and December.

Throwing 50 times in a vacuum isn’t the same as throwing accurately and efficiently 50 times. Newton didn’t complete half his passes against Tampa Bay, and the team didn’t score a single touchdown. Those accuracy struggles and the inability to finish drives in the red zone certainly doesn’t mean his shoulder is “fine,” in my mind.

And then there’s the foot, which Rivera said Thursday “has nothing to do with” Newton’s struggles or inability to run the ball. Newton has run five times for minus-2 yards this season, easily the worst two-game stretch of his career. The Panthers are now 0-7 all-time when Newton rushes two or fewer times — and yet, there’s no indication the team will look to run Newton more going forward.

Part of that could be because of the foot, but it’s also about not wanting to subject Newton’s shoulder to any unnecessary hits.

Either way, Newton’s ability to run is what forces defenses not to stack eight and nine men in the box every play to stop Christian McCaffrey. Without him taking off on designed runs or scrambles, expect more stacked boxes in the future — and more results like the Bucs game to follow.

Is Will Grier anywhere near an opportunity to play and succeed in a game situation?

No. Neither is Newton’s primary backup Kyle Allen.

The Panthers made Grier a third-round pick out of West Virginia for his long-term upside. He has nice touch on his deep passes and decent mobility. He also proved his leadership throughout college and improved year-to-year.

But everyone calling for Grier to start over Newton now, to put it nicely, has no idea what they’re talking about. Grier looked completely overwhelmed in the preseason against reserves, and while he’s a nice guy, he has no business being on an NFL field right now.

Allen showed in Week 17 last year that he can compete with starters and win, but that admittedly was a game with no implications for the Saints. He looked rocky for most of the preseason. Basically, that’s a long way of saying that Carolina does not have another realistic option on the roster if the team is looking to get back to the playoffs.

Will the Panthers move on from Cam Newton or Ron Rivera first?

This question assumes the Panthers will move on from their franchise quarterback and head coach, neither of which is happening right now. They also aren’t guaranteed to happen in the near future, so long as this team rights the ship.

And normally I wouldn’t even include a question like this, because it is hypothetical and extreme. But based on the flood of messages I’ve received over the past two weeks, there is real anger among this fan base to get rid of both men. I wanted to explain if those moves are even possible, and if so, what they would entail.

Rivera and Newton are signed through the 2020 season. It’s easier to move on from a coach than any player since their salary doesn’t count against your finite cap space. Theoretically, any coach with an underperforming team could be removed at just about any time — again, that does not at all mean the Panthers are looking to dump Rivera, a two-time AP Coach of the Year with three NFC South titles and a Super Bowl appearance.

Newton’s contract also expires after the 2020 season. He will count for $21.1 million against the salary cap next season, which would be 14th among all quarterbacks. The more interesting part is if the Panthers were looking to get out of Newton’s contract — again, the team has said nothing to indicate it would — then he would only count for a dead cap hit of $2 million. The Panthers would then have the difference, an extra $19 million in salary-cap space, to use to fill out the rest of their roster.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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