Last Thursday, the Carolina Panthers restricted how much Cam Newton threw during practice. They would have preferred Newton took the entire day off, a routine Coach Ron Rivera affords other Carolina veterans three days before games. Newton had little choice but to accept the breather for his arm, as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery. But coaches knew he wouldn’t sit out completely.
“He’s not going to take a rest day,” Coach Ron Rivera said Thursday. “He just won’t. So this is the compromise — the new normal.”
Newton’s season, in many ways, is about discovering how to operate in a new normal. It is a season of adjustment for Newton, and sometimes adjustments take time. The first two weeks of the season, despite two victories, have reinforced that the process may not be smooth.
The Panthers moved to 2-0 on Sunday with a 9-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills that echoed their Week 1 win against the San Francisco 49ers. Their defense dominated, the offense looked sluggish and Newton struggled as he adjusted to the Panthers’ new, cautious approach to using him and in his return from March surgery to repair a partially torn right rotator cuff.
The 2015 MVP finds himself leading an undefeated team, but also at a career crossroads. In the offseason, the Panthers asked Newton to change the way he played, to run less in an effort reduce the physical punishment on his body. Newton also underwent an operation that has clearly diminished his accuracy and may affect his throwing for the rest of his career.
Sunday showed the challenge he faces. Newton completed 20 of 32 for 228 yards, misfiring on several key throws. Trying to stay in the pocket behind a shaky offensive, Newton also took six sacks, including one that twisted his left ankle and nearly forced him to the bench. He heard his ankle crunch and felt cartilage move.
“Man, it was scary,” Newton said. “I didn’t even want to say what I thought happened.”
Newton is also trying to regain confidence after 2016, when the Panthers went 6-10 and he absorbed a frightening number of crushing hits. In many cases, referees failed to protect him from hits that either came late or to his head. The punishment he took last season would have affected any quarterback, and Rivera admitted in the offseason that Newton needed to rebuild his confidence.
The Panthers are trying to reduce those hits with changes to their offense. They used the eighth overall pick on Christian McCaffrey and added speedster Curtis Samuel in the third round to give Newton more weapons, and they spent $55 million on left tackle Matt Kalil in attempt to improve his protection. But so far, Newton has not shown he can make concessions while also producing at the level that made him one of the most powerful forces in the NFL.
“He made some good decisions,” Rivera said. “Just the operations part, the execution part for him, we have to continue to work on it, push on him, press on him and keep holding him to his standards. He wants to be so good, but he is still developing and getting back into it coming off of the offseason surgery.”
Newton’s discomfort nearly cost the Panthers. Late in the fourth quarter, on third and goal from the 2, Newton rolled to his right and saw McCaffrey running wide open in the right flat along the goal line. A touchdown would make the score 13-3 with less than three minutes left, effectively ending the game. It was an easy completion, one he has made so often, with a gentle flick of his wrist.
The ball sailed high, nowhere near the reach of McCaffrey. Newton walked off the field, and the Panthers settled for a field goal. Given an opening, the Bills almost stunned Carolina, but Tyrod Taylor’s long, fourth-down pass drifted just over wide receiver Zay Jones’s fingertips at the goal line. The late incomplete pass frustrated Newton, even after Carolina held on.
“Missing layups like that, it’s uncalled for,” Newton said. “I wish I had about two or three balls back, but that’s in every single game. You know with those balls completed, the outcome of the game is potentially different. But again, that’s the nature of the beast. I’m not going to be a pessimistic person about this whole thing. I’m just excited that we found a way to win the football game.”
The missed throw illustrated the physical trial Newton faces. When Newton’s accuracy has failed this season, his misses have mostly floated high over receivers’ heads. Passes sail when a quarterback’s shoulder drops, like a fatiguing baseball pitcher who can no longer get on top of the ball. As Newton confronts the effects of his surgery, the high passes are a sign his full strength has not returned.
Things will not get easier for Newton. He lost tight end Greg Olson, his most reliable receiver over the years, to a broken foot Olson said will keep him out for “a lot” of games, according to reporters in Carolina.
Newton is outwardly confident, quick to flash a megawatt, eager to shoulder any burden. Beneath the exterior, especially early in his career, Newton felt the pressure of carrying a franchise. He believed he needed to be superhuman in order for the Panthers to win, and when he wasn’t and they didn’t, he took it hard.
“I could see it in his body language, the stress level,” his father, Cecil Newton, said in a phone conversation. “I could see in his body language if he didn’t play good, he knew it was all on him.” This offseason, Cecil Newton saw a slight shift. “His thought process and his response to certain things was somewhat different,” he said.
Newton will need patience and an improved tolerance for vulnerability. For his entire career, starting with his one sublime college season at Auburn, Newton has dominated with awesome physicality. The punishment he’s taken and the surgery on his shoulder will force him, this season, to try to beat defenses in new ways.
“Let me check myself,” Newton said Sunday. “I just have to trust the whole process. Even though we see what’s going on, I see what’s going on and it’s not happening the way I want it to happen, I know in the back of my mind things are going to get shaking. As we’re going right now, things are already shaking the way we want them to. We’re good. I’m good.”
If Newton could take a lesson from the first two weeks, it should be that after carrying the Panthers for so many years, he can finally let the Panthers carry him for a period of time. The first two weeks of the season have shown Newton cannot do it all, at least not in his current form. Maybe he will again in the future. For now, he must accept that and adjust. That is Cam Newton’s new normal.
>>> The Falcons built a 34-10 lead and, in doing so, launched a million Twitter jokes that were old by the time the “send” button was clicked. But Atlanta, as Mark Maske writes after its 34-23 smashing of Green Bay, is no joke. Once again, the Falcons seem to be the best team in the NFC, with little doubt. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Falcons is how unstoppable their offense is at home, even under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who replaced Kyle Shanahan, now coaching the 49ers.
In their past 11 home games, the Falcons have averaged 434 yards and 35.8 points. Playing indoors also allows their defense, which might be the fastest unit in the NFL, to play at alarming speed. The Falcons are among the NFL’s best, with a team built perfectly for its new home.
>>> Oh, hey, the Patriots are good. After its stunning season opener, New England showed again it never lets a crisis live past a week. “On to New Orleans,” as Mark Maske writes. Tom Brady went nuclear in New Orleans and the Patriots romped, 36-20, but as Maske notes, the Patriots do have an injury problem. Rob Gronkowski missed the end of the game with a groin issue.
Nearly as significant, running back Rex Burkhead left with a rib injury. Burkhead is not a big name, but his versatility could be a major factor in the Patriots’ attempts to replace Julian Edelman. In the first quarter, Burkhead motioned into the slot and ran a seam pattern for New England’s first touchdown. He’s a classic Bill Belichick offensive weapon, and his absence would hurt.
>>> At the end of the Dolphins’ 19-17 victory over the Chargers, Miami Coach Adam Gase committed an unforgivable coaching gaffe. In range for a game-winning field goal and out of timeouts with 19 seconds left, the Chargers had Philip Rivers quarterback sneak to center the ball. The decision forced the Chargers either to scramble or to spike the ball — no sure thing — or haphazardly send out their field goal unit.
Gase did the craziest thing — he called timeout himself with 10 seconds remaining, relieving the Chargers from any chaos. Younghoe Koo bailed out Gase when he pushed the kick wide right.
Gase was surely hoping to preserve a few seconds in case Koo made the kick for a desperate scoring chance. He overthought the situation and only helped the opposing team.
>>> Alex Smith watched the Chiefs draft his replacement this offseason, but he is not going to hand his position to Pat Mahomes without a fight. In two games, Alex Smith has defied his “game manager” label and made big play after big play. The Chiefs have scored 69 points in two games, and Smith has completed 49 of 63 passes for 619 yards and five touchdowns. As the Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger writes, “the Chiefs are 2-0 because Smith is their quarterback.”
>>> On the other end of the quarterback spectrum, the knives are out for Mike Glennon in Chicago after he threw for 301 yards but also chucked two interceptions in the Bears’ 29-7 loss in Tampa Bay. Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey called for the Bears to go with second overall pick Mitch Trubisky, who starred in the preseason. Bears Coach John Fox said he’ll stick with Glennon, who signed a three-year, $45 million deal in free agency before the Bears drafted Trubisky in Week 3.
The Bears, of course, set themselves up for this. They have a terrible roster that ensured they’d get off to a slow start. Did they expect the fan base to remain patient in Glennon with the No. 2 pick holding a clipboard? Glennon isn’t a franchise quarterback, but the Bears undermined any chance of him having success by taking Trubisky.
>>> Paul Richardson caught the Seahawks’ game-winning touchdown — their first touchdown of the season — after breaking his finger earlier in the game, as Michael-Shawn Dugar writes. Seattle’s offense remains painful to watch, but credit Richardson for a spectacularly painful catch.
>>> Los Angeles does not care to have two NFL teams, at least not in the current iteration.
Bill Plaschke says the Chargers don’t belong in L.A. The NFL has for years been an ever-expanding economic and cultural force. Their awkward entry into Los Angeles might be the most tangible sign of the league finding its limit, or the start of coming down from its apex. Maybe the new stadium will change things. But for now, the NFL is facing an entity that would’ve seemed unthinkable a few years ago: a city that views a home team with indifference.
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