Panthers struggle to strike the right balance with Cam Newton

Mike Florio
ProFootball Talk on NBC Sports

Unless the Panthers are flat-out lying on the injury report, quarterback Cam Newton entered Thursday night’s game against the Buccaneers healthy. So why wouldn’t they simply have him fall forward on the fourth-and-very-short play near the Tampa Bay end zone with the game on the line?

Coach Ron Rivera bristled at post-game questions about a foot that Newton injured in the preseason, insisting the “foot’s got nothing to do” with the decision to not call a quarterback sneak in that spot.

If that’s true, it’s not an existing injury but a desire to avoid the next one that has the Panthers exercising undue caution with Cam. For several years, they’ve been trying to resist the temptation to devote a sizable chunk of the running game to a player who seems to be, but who clearly isn’t, indestructible.

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Infatuated by his jaw-dropping size and by his ability to gain yards and score points with his feet, the Panthers previously hadn’t been able to successfully and consistently cut back on his running. After last year’s shoulder injury and this year’s foot scare, they appear to be determined to restrict him to pocket passer.

That’s fine, but even pocket passers sometimes plunge through one of the “A” gaps to gain quick and easy inches. Tom Brady used to do it all the time, and Newton should be able to will his way forward by a foot or two when absolutely necessary.

Many will still assume that Cam is secretly injured, whether it’s his foot or his arm. Rivera said there’s “no issue” with Cam’s surgically-repaired shoulder, pointing out that he threw the ball deep a couple of times.

He’s still not throwing the ball accurately. And an inability to control the direction and/or the velocity of the ball is every bit as troubling as an inability to throw it deep down the field.

Indeed, it’s arguably better for the Panthers and Newton if Cam actually is injured. Otherwise, the only logical explanation for last night’s performance is that he has lost his high-end skills. If he doesn’t get them back, 2019 could end up being his last year in Carolina.

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