Cam Newton has been officially cleared to play Sunday, following a concussion he sustained two weeks ago that forced him to miss a game. His return will put a familiar, and highly effective, player under center for the Panthers, but the question is: Will Newton change the way he plays?
Even by NFL standards, the Carolina quarterback is an imposing physical specimen at 6-5, 260 pounds, and he has used that size and his unusual speed to leave the pocket for huge plays. In his sixth season in the league, Newton has rushed for 3,354 yards and a league-record 45 touchdowns, and he also holds the NFL mark for most games with a passing and rushing score.
However, all that running has exposed Newton to a damaging amount of contact. In fact, a recent study by ESPN concluded that, since he entered the league in 2011, the 2015 NFL MVP has taken far more hits than any other quarterback.
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert claimed that Newton has taken 831 hits in 82 regular season games, for an approximate average of 10 per contest, on both running and passing plays. The next-closest quarterback, the Seahawks’ equally mobile Russell Wilson, has taken just 533 hits in the same period (although he entered the NFL in 2012), and the Chiefs’ Alex Smith is next at 463.
Seifert also noted that Newton holds onto the ball longer than almost any other quarterback, a reflection of his confidence that he can absorb some contact while waiting for receivers to get open downfield. Between that willingness to linger in the pocket and all the designed runs the Panthers call for him — far more than any other quarterback — Newton plays a dangerous brand of football.
The Panthers, though, don’t seem particularly concerned about Newton’s propensity to run with the ball, at least according to comments they made this week, as they prepared to take on the New Orleans Saints. “That’s his game,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said (via the Associated Press). “We will look at him and talk about it, but part of his game and what makes him so good is that.”
“The quarterback is going to play the game the way he plays the game,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “That is one thing about Cam Newton. We can call the play and he can drop back and take off and run. So we are going to play our offense accordingly.”
With Carolina, the defending NFC champions, off to a 1-4 start, the team’s coaching staff likely don’t want to alter what has worked so well in the past. But others close to the quarterback are pleading with him to exercise more caution. This from ESPN’s Adam Schefter:
Those close to Newton have urged him to get down, out of bounds or into the end zone quicker than he did last week, when he allowed the Falcons a free shot at him, and he has acknowledged the message and said he will do a better job of protecting himself when he can, sources said.
In a Week 4 loss at Atlanta, Newton ran for a two-point conversion, but he appeared to slow down just before he crossed the end zone, and he suffered a concussion on a legal helmet-to-helmet hit by Falcons linebacker Deion Jones. Newton sat out Carolina’s Week 5 game against the Buccaneers, and in his absence, backup quarterback Derek Anderson had trouble moving the offense in a 17-14 defeat.
In a Week 1 loss to the Broncos, Newton took numerous blows to the head from defenders, including two helmet-to-helmet hits that resulted in fines for Denver safety Darian Stewart and linebacker Brandon Marshall. Newton appeared to have been knocked woozy, but team doctors determined he had not suffered a brain injury.
“My focus is trying to win football games through all of the hits and everything else,” Newton said after that game. “My job is to collect wins.”