Football

Analysis: Panthers deserve some blame for Cam Newton’s injury reaching this point

No matter what happens next with Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, remember these words from coach Ron Rivera:

Don’t even worry about the foot. The foot has nothing to do with it.

Rivera made those remarks almost two months ago now, immediately after Carolina’s shocking Week 2 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Newton played that game, but Superman never showed and Carolina lost 20-14. Perhaps most damning about the night was that Newton, arguably the best rushing quarterback in NFL history, had two carries for no yards. And on the game-deciding play, a fourth-and-1 call two yards away from the end zone, the Panthers gave the ball to Christian McCaffrey on a trick play that failed.

The team’s 6-foot-5 battering ram of a quarterback was relegated to decoy duty.

It was painfully obvious in that moment that Newton wasn’t right. Really, it was obvious to the world at large from Newton’s first snap in Carolina’s first game this year. To Panthers’ coaches and players, it was obvious from the week of practice leading into this pivotal 2019 season, when Newton admitted he had an “obvious limp” during practice.

Yet, he played.

“Why?” is one of many questions left to be answered in the wake of Tuesday’s news that the Panthers have placed Newton on injured reserve. The move effectively ends Newton’s year, as NFL rules require him to miss the remainder of the regular season.

So while Newton won’t appear in a Panthers uniform the rest of 2019 — and questions abound about whether he will ever wear the black and blue again — another key question emerges:

How did we get to this point?

It seems so long ago now that it’s almost an afterthought. But coming into this season, Newton’s issue was his surgically-repaired shoulder — not his foot.

After a strong first half of 2018, Newton’s arm strength and effectiveness withered over the back half of the schedule. Accordingly, Carolina lost seven games in a row, and Newton eventually was benched for the final two games of the year. That necessitated arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January, something that set the quarterback on a six-month recovery.

Newton was back as a somewhat-regular participant during training camp this summer, but he still missed Carolina’s first two preseason contests. Considering he hadn’t taken live football snaps in almost eight months, the Panthers deemed it important for Newton to take at least a few preseason snaps against the New England Patriots.

“You just never know. It’s crazy how things happen,” Rivera told reporters before the Patriots game. “You’ve just got to go out and play football and hope for the best.”

Maybe. But the truth is, Newton never should have played in the preseason.

Subjecting a star player — especially one as beat up as Newton — to more hits in a meaningless game is a highly questionable move. The nine-year NFL vet is far from the only player ever to suffer a serious preseason injury, but there was substantial criticism of the decision to play him before the games actually mattered.

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Cam Newton injured his left foot in the team’s third preseason game against the New England Patriots, a meaningless game he never should have played in. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

After 11 offensive plays against New England, when Newton came limping off the Gillette Stadium turf baring his teeth as doctors felt around his left foot, that criticism was validated.

In a little more than two weeks, Newton inexplicably was back out on the field. In late September, he admitted in a video blog that he should not have been playing, and took responsibility for being out there.

“I could have easily said, ‘You know what, Coach? I don’t think I’m ready,’ ” he said in the vlog. “ ’Maybe I need to consider sitting this one out for the betterment.’

“And with that Superman title-tag, I’m like, ‘Nah, coach, I’m good. I’m good. I’m good! Let me play!’”

But Newton wasn’t good.

He had that obvious limp in practice; he admitted he couldn’t run; even his own brother asked him where his usual energy was.

That everyone knew Newton was ailing and still allowed him to play speaks to a number of things. The quarterback certainly deserves some element of blame here for any part he played in “hiding” his injury. With his competitiveness, it’s understandable that he’d want to play even through pain.

Ultimately though, that decision isn’t Newton’s to make.

It’s Rivera’s. It’s Hurney’s. And after eight years of watching Newton tear through the NFL, they should have been able to see what everyone else could: No. 1 wasn’t No. 1.

Speculating why Newton was allowed to play is just that: speculation. It’s easy to spout off criticism with the gift of hindsight, which the Panthers never could have had. But even so, the decisions to play Newton in the preseason and later on a short week are dubious and short-sighted at best.

What happens next with Newton is still up in the air, and no immediate decision is coming. This is a situation that will stretch into the offseason, a steady cloud hanging over Newton and the organization.

If this does end up being the end of Cam Newton as a Carolina Panther, it will be a sad day throughout the Carolinas. It will be a sad day for Newton, who has made this city — and team — his home.

A player of his magnitude and importance deserves better than to literally limp away.

Whatever ultimately happens with Newton, though, this much can’t be avoided:

The Panthers have always said they wanted to put Newton in the best possible situation to succeed — and they didn’t.

They didn’t by playing him for three series in a meaningless preseason game. They didn’t when they saw his inability to run in Week 1 and trotted him out again four days later. And they certainly haven’t the nearly two months since then, by allowing nagging questions about Newton to distract from the team’s resilient 5-3 start.

Don’t even worry about the foot, Rivera said two months ago. The foot has nothing to do with it.

Only it did. And now, the Panthers have to live with the consequences — whatever they may be — of failing to accept that.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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