Luke DeCock

As Newton sits, again, Panthers risking it all without a backup plan

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton walks the sidelines during the first half an NFL preseason football game against the Buffalo Bills, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton walks the sidelines during the first half an NFL preseason football game against the Buffalo Bills, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) AP

There may not have been a jersey on a fan in the stands Friday night that matched any that actually saw the field, other than the Buffalo Bills fans who made the trip down from Cary. Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey led a long list of popular observers who played the same number of snaps for the Carolina Panthers as the couple wearing those two jerseys in seats above the bench.

Which shouldn’t have been all that disappointing for the fans who not only decided to attend but also successfully navigated the mobile ticketing issues that left many stranded outside, any preseason NFL game being the English translation of caveat emptor, but it certainly ended up being disappointing for the Panthers.

While the Panthers continue to coddle Newton’s surgically repaired right shoulder, and understandably so, every snap his would-be backups take only puts more weight on that joint. Kyle Allen was subpar Thursday, without Greg Olsen and McCaffrey but behind the first-string line (not that it distinguished itself, either, in a 27-14 loss). Will Grier may be a long-term work in progress, but he’s also a short-term pick-six machine. What should have been another audition for those guys became an aberration. If their QB ratings Friday were temperatures, they’d provoke frost warnings. Taylor Heinicke could win the job by default; the less he plays the better he looks.

It’s a little frightening just how much is riding on Newton’s shoulder, not that there hasn’t been since the first snap he took with the Panthers and will be until he takes his last, but the yawning void of questionable competence behind him only adds to the pressure -- and the concern. Especially as his preseason debut is pushed back ... and back ... and back.

At some point, he’s going to have to risk getting hit, get at least a little live-fire action with the offense, start making his way back to real life. It’s one thing to be careful, another to raise questions about just how well everything is actually going with his recovery. Friday slotted easily into the former category, but the longer Newton goes the more things are going to slide into the latter.

And even that would be fine, if the Panthers had a viable emergency alternative. There is no wiggle room, no insurance.

There are more than three weeks to go before the opener, and that could yet change. Spare parts elsewhere might fill gaps here. The bar isn’t high. There’s even a guy out there who might be a fit, if the owner who accepted the gift of Eric Reid from his fellow plutocrats is willing to make room for another socially aware player activist. The Panthers have reached the what-do-they-have-to-lose stage where Colin Kaepernick starts to look less like a risk and more like a life ring.

“I think Colin can help every NFL team, first and foremost,” Reid said, wearing a black Kaepernick jersey in solidarity. “We did not play our best football tonight so I’m not going to throw our guys under the bus and say they should lose their jobs. We all played terribly tonight. But Colin could help every NFL team.”

With so many other pieces in place, so many upgrades made, accepting the status quo behind Newton would be unacceptably rash. Even if he was fully healthy.

Only a fool would draw too many conclusions from a preseason game with so many important pieces missing, even as desultory a performance as this, a disaster even by early preseason standards. It equally doesn’t take a genius to see the Panthers, sans Newton, don’t have the quarterback play to compete even in a game as meaningless as this one, let alone the real thing.

Newton watched from the sideline, shifting from foot to foot, hair poking out of a visor, his absence more noticeable with every snap he didn’t take. The Panthers were always going to go as far as Newton could take them, but there is no safety net. There is only him and his shoulder, an entire season hanging on both of them, as much now as ever. More, even.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.