CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Scott Fowler/The Charlotte Observer) - What we saw from Cam Newton on Sunday was a pale imitation of what we have seen from him at his best, and that was one of the primary reasons for the Carolina Panthers’ 30-27 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the season opener.
Newton wasn’t awful. He started and finished the game, which wasn’t a certainty given his shoulder and foot troubles. He threw for more yards on fewer attempts than the Rams’ Jared Goff.
But that explosion — that lava burst that is Newton at his most dynamic — wasn’t there.
Christian McCaffrey supplied that for Carolina, whenever it came, before an anxious home crowd. But Newton, throwing the ball 38 times, never completed a pass for 20 or more yards.
The Panthers tried to protect their quarterback in the running game by barely using him at all, and there he ended up with three carries for negative-2 yards rushing — a career low in rushing yards for the nine-year veteran.
I asked Newton after the game what it felt like having his number called so rarely in the run game. His stone-faced reply: “Great.”
It wasn’t great. For a Sunday, at least, Newton became an average, “let’s-stay-in-the-pocket-and-throw-it-short” quarterback. Put it this way: On Sunday, Newton was a less accurate version of Steve Beuerlein. And that’s never going to be enough for this imperfect Carolina team.
Even in that horrendous game against New Orleans last December — the one where Newton shouldn’t have played, could barely throw the ball downfield at all and wound up ending his 2018 season — he managed one completion of 22 yards. In this one, his long pass was 17.
Nine months later, the arm strength looks like it’s there for Newton, but the Panthers couldn’t harness it. Newton accounted for zero touchdowns himself, as McCaffrey (209 total yards) scored both of the Panthers’ TDs on acrobatic runs and spearheaded the Carolina offense. And on one of the few times Newton threw the ball more than 20 yards downfield — in a critical situation with Carolina down 23-20 but with the ball and all the momentum in the fourth quarter — he overthrew an open Curtis Samuel on a wheel route 25 yards downfield.
Newton bemoaned that bad throw — “I have to give him a better ball,” he said — as well as his later fourth-quarter interception. But the quarterback bristled when asked a question about throwing the ball deep.
“I’m not going to get into no philosophical discussion about throwing the ball downfield,” Newton said, “because that’s not what this game is about. I took what the defense gives me. … You don’t say to Coach, ‘Hey Coach, let’s throw the ball deep and just see where that gets us.’ That’s not our mentality.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera insisted that Newton was at full strength. “No, he is not limited in any way at all,” Rivera said. And, later: “Again, he can still throw it deep. It’s just what he decides. ... He had an opportunity to throw it long and deep to Curtis, and he overthrew him.”
There were some positives. Newton threw for a respectable 239 yards. The Panthers only scored three points in the first half, but fired up 24 more in the second against a Rams team that only allowed 13 points in the most recent Super Bowl. Newton got sacked three times, made a crunching, touchdown-saving tackle after his interception and didn’t seem much worse for the wear.
Said Newton: “That’s what I’m most optimistic about. ... Whatever play was called, I felt confident. I didn’t even think about my shoulder.”
But there were issues. The Panthers gave Joey Slye a more difficult field goal on one drive when a helmet radio malfunction forced Newton to first waste a timeout and then take a delay-of-game penalty. Slye missed the resulting 53-yarder in a game Carolina lost by three. (In retrospect, Newton calling a play himself in the huddle rather than taking the 5-yard penalty — after already taking a timeout — would have been a better solution.)
On another early play, Newton got a pass tipped and it ended up counting as a lateral, which was recovered by the Rams at the Carolina 10 and led to a touchdown. That play may have been incorrectly called — it appeared that Newton was trying to throw the ball slightly forward before the tip, which would have resulted in a mere incompletion. But it officially counted as a turnover for Newton, so he wound up with two TOs and no TDs on the afternoon.
That’s not going to get it done in the NFL, and neither is not having a pass completion longer than 17 yards. Scoring 27 points isn’t terrible, but the Panthers had chances for a lot more. And when they play Tampa Bay on Thursday night, for gosh sakes, let Newton run the ball a little. Some of the best runs of Newton’s career have come against the Buccaneers. Don’t take away that part of his game.
And if Newton won’t say it, I will say it instead on behalf of all Panthers fans: