Luke DeCock

Cam Newton is the only person on the Panthers who’s being honest about Cam Newton

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Cam Newton isn’t hurt. Ask anyone. He’s fine. Just fine. Nothing is wrong. Everything is just great. Couldn’t be better.

“Don’t even worry about the foot,” Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The foot’s got nothing to do with it.”

The shoulder, then?

The Panthers continue to insist that Newton is fine when the evidence otherwise continues to pile up. The quarterback who has gotten more short-yardage carries than any of his peers got only one Thursday, and not even when it really mattered, when the Panthers had a chance to score the go-ahead touchdown on the goal line in a 20-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He bobbled the ball away on his other carry, which leaves Newton with a total of minus-2 yards rushing this season, and if that sounds bad, wait until you see him throw the ball. At least he tried to throw long in this game, after the tepid dinking-and-dumping of the opener, and he connected a few times. He also missed throws he usually makes, over and over again.

“He had his moments,” Rivera said.

Rivera says Newton is fine. His teammates dodge the questions. The only person who’s honest about the situation is Newton himself.

“I have to be better,” Newton said. “No matter what physical condition I’m in. No matter what foot, shoulder, I didn’t get the job done tonight, man. It’s frustrating. I wish I could say something other than that, but that’s the facts. I’m a brutally honest person with people and I’m brutally honest with myself. It’s time for me to look myself in the mirror and do some real soul-searching because I had opportunities tonight and I didn’t get it done.”

He also didn’t have opportunities he usually has.

In the game’s decisive goal-line sequence, on fourth-and-1 from the 1 1/2-yard line, Newton was merely a decoy. The Panthers ran a direct-snap trick play to Christian McCaffrey, right into the teeth of a waiting Tampa defense to cap a brutal night in the red zone that saw them settle for four field goals and tack on a safety.

In years past, that play would have gone to Newton. Every time.

“At the end of the day, whether he’s an option or not, I’ve got to do my job,” McCaffrey said.

Newton looks like a husk of the quarterback he once was. He can’t run, can’t hit open receivers consistently, can’t maneuver out of the persistent pressure that has left him besieged thanks to an overwhelmed offensive line. He doesn’t look right.

Tampa packed the box, targeted McCaffrey and dared Newton to throw, having predetermined he was no threat to run. It was the way teams played him as a rookie, his first few games in the NFL. They learned quickly. Now they’re getting away with it.

“I think there’s a million different story lines that we can try to galvanize, that we can create from being 0-2,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “I don’t blame you, there’s a billion of them. But that’s not for me to really comment about.”

For all that, the Panthers have played solid defense and are two plays away from being 2-0, such fine margins that only serve to bring Newton’s struggles into sharp relief. He hears the boos.

“All fingers are just pointing back to me specifically, and the offense,” Newton acknowledged.

If the opening loss was unfortunate, Thursday was inexcusable, a short-week loss to what was supposed to be the worst team in the division. Supposed to be — past tense. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the poker table, you are the sucker. The same is true in the NFC South.

The Panthers can’t win with Newton playing like this and they certainly can’t win without him. He may not be right, but this is as healthy as he’s ever going to get.

Maybe that’s why Rivera keeps insisting Newton is fine. The alternative is too grim to contemplate.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, 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.