Panthers coach Ron Rivera reveals a wounded Cam Newton

·NFL columnist

PHOENIX – Apparently the rest, rest and more rest that Cam Newton’s body needed this offseason wasn’t the only thing required. Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday there’s a little bit of repair going on, too. And not just with Newton’s body.

“He’s going to have to rebuild his confidence,” Rivera said at the NFL owners meetings. “It was shook. Let’s be honest. I’m not going to lie about that. The young man went through a tough time and we went through a tough time.”

Rivera was fairly expansive when it came to Newton, discussing the partially torn rotator cuff on Newton’s throwing shoulder, which is suddenly requiring surgery this week after Rivera previously said that option wasn’t expected when speaking at the NFL scouting combine nearly a month ago.

That news was certainly paramount, considering it will take Newton out of the offseason throwing program, where chemistry is built so the offense hits the ground running in training camp. Instead, the preseason will have to be a microwave session for the unit, despite the reality that Newton isn’t likely to be exposed to much exhibition action.

Cam Newton followed up an MVP campaign with a rough 2016 season in which his Panthers failed to make the postseason a year after winning the NFC crown. (AP)
Cam Newton followed up an MVP campaign with a rough 2016 season in which his Panthers failed to make the postseason a year after winning the NFC crown. (AP)

What might be a bigger deal is Rivera admitting – albeit in a fairly low-key way – that Newton is once again requiring work on his confidence. Whether intended or not, it’s a statement that harkens back to the most frustrating part of Newton’s NFL résumé: the swings in emotional composure that were a significant hallmark of his first frustrating seasons in the league.

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We’re entering Year Seven of Cam Newton and a troubling part of history seems to be repeating itself.

“He’s human,” Rivera said. “For anyone to sort of think he wasn’t, you’ve got to understand he’s human. He’s a tough-minded football player who does everything he can to win. It was a tough year last year, I think. But I also think it was a great learning experience for all of us – a humbling experience. … I know he was frustrated a lot last year, because we were so close.

“It’s hard. You lose six games by three points or less – you lose them on the last drive or two – that’s tough. That’s tough on anybody.”

To be fair, it’s still March. There’s no need to go wild over the state of Newton’s mindset or even an offseason surgery on his shoulder. But it’s fair to suggest that it’s getting to be deep into Newton’s career to be doing “rebuilding” on his confidence. Particularly when he was named the NFL’s near-unanimous MVP and offensive player of the year only 14 months ago. Yet, here we are, with a head coach once again talking about the toll that Newton is taking mentally as he deals with losing and getting punished physically.

And using the word “shook” no less – a term not often used to describe a quarterback only one season removed from being MVP.

But it’s a term that should sound familiar because in times of struggle, being shaken up and having to rebuild confidence have been themes for Newton. Not in a few years, but definitely during the rocky start to his career. Just like then, some basic facts still resonate about Newton. Mentally, he takes losing hard. And physically, he gets hit hard.

At some point, this player and this franchise have to overcome that storyline, lest it become what defines Newton’s entire career. Some of that definitely should be directed toward the NFL, which needs to do a better job of treating Newton the same way it treats Tom Brady in respect to the hits he receives in the passer pocket. But some of it also falls on Newton and the Carolina franchise builders. If the NFL won’t officiate them out of some of the problems, the Panthers may have to resolve it themselves. As Rivera likes to say, it’s time to evolve.

None of this is meant to criticize Rivera for bringing up Newton’s offseason reset. If it’s necessary, there’s little need to tiptoe around it – especially after Newton himself made it so clear that he needed to get away from football this offseason.

As he said following the season finale, “Me and football got a love-hate relationship. We’re not on good terms right now. I’m just going to leave her alone for a while and just be as regular as possible.”

As a 22- or 23-year-old NFL quarterback, that’s an understandable place to be. At 27 or 28 and looking in the rear view at an MVP season, it’s less ideal. If it’s happening at 30, that’s a significant problem.

Will the swagger return for Cam Newton in 2017? (AP)
Will the swagger return for Cam Newton in 2017? (AP)

Making sure this isn’t still happening in 2019 is likely what has fueled the Panthers this offseason. At some point, a team can do one of three things when challenged as a brain trust in the NFL: Suck it up and adapt to problems mentally; rearrange the roster to overcome repetitive problems; or get fired. That’s where Carolina is at. It can’t all be put on Newton. It can’t all be put on Rivera. And it can’t all be put on general manager Dave Gettleman. Instead, that trio all has to play a part in resolving the same old struggle.

This is what has fueled some of the offseason signings. Most specifically, the monster contract given to left tackle Matt Kalil, whose departure in free agency didn’t exactly leave the Minnesota Vikings in tears. Despite copious warts on Kalil’s performance the past few years – arguably injury-driven – it didn’t stop the Panthers from giving him at least two legitimate seasons of left tackle money in what amounts to over $25 million in realized cash for the next two seasons. In theory, it allows the Panthers to slide Michael Oher to the slightly less-taxing right tackle spot and shore up the edges of the offensive line. That is, if Oher can clear the concussion protocol, which still hasn’t happened.

The Panthers would also like to see wideout Kelvin Benjamin healthy and in playing shape when training camp begins, as well as Newton playing at a slightly lower weight. Rivera may have hinted Wednesday at the team’s draft plans on offense, which some expect to be addressed with the No. 8 overall pick.

“[The struggles go] back to you’ve got to protect your quarterback and put playmakers around him,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to do that. I’d like to believe that we’re doing those things right now that we need to do in the offseason.”

What that means next remains to be seen. But entering Newton’s seventh season, one thing isn’t: Some of the same issues continue to press down on the quarterback and the franchise. That can’t go on much longer before cyclical circumstance becomes a hardened trend. As “shook” as Cam Newton may have been last season, shaking loose of some familiar problems and offseason mental resets seem to be more vital than ever.

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