Quarterbacks throwing footballs usually does not count as news, but the NFL media machine isn’t as well oiled in the heat of June. Last week, a fan captured a Zapruder-esque video through a fence of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton—wait for it—throwing footballs. It’s the first known instance of Newton throwing since arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder in January, and The Charlotte Observer confirmed Newton was throwing not just any footballs, but regulation-sized footballs. (Andrew Luck taught us that makes all the difference.) Panthers head coach Ron Rivera declined to provide a timeline on Newton’s shoulder but said the team will Trust the Process™ and seemed far more irked that a fan was snooping on private property.
This is the third consecutive year that an injury to Newton’s throwing shoulder looms over Carolina’s season. Compounding the matter, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner turned 30 last month and has two years left on his contract and will surely pursue a mammoth extension next year. But the hoopla about Cam’s shoulder speaks to how intertwined his fate is with the franchise’s. As Cam goes, so do the Panthers, and right now Cam appears to be stuck in limbo.
Carolina started the 2018 season 6-2 but finished 1-7, with their lone win in that span coming against the Teddy Bridgewater–led Saints in Week 17. New Panthers owner David Tepper (who bought the team from founder Jerry Richardson after multiple accounts of Richardson sexually harassing employees were reported) held onto general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera despite the rocky finish, but he did tell Rivera to make coaching changes on defense and take over defensive play-calling. As for the offense, well ...
“On the offensive side of the ball, listen that’s obvious to anybody who watched this team,” Tepper told the team website in January. “Cam’s shoulder obviously was an issue later in the season. … I think it’s pretty well known he was not throwing at practices. That was probably a problem for offensive rhythm. At the end of the season, we couldn’t throw the ball downfield, which was a big problem.”
A big problem indeed. Newton was pulled for two Hail Mary attempts last season, and he admitted in December that he had issues with strength and range of motion, and that ice, anti-inflammatories, acupuncture, and massages were not helping his progress.
“I didn’t know what the fuck was wrong with my shoulder,” Newton said on his YouTube channel in a video posted in February. “I just knew that it hurt, and that it was an issue. Like, I couldn’t throw the ball further than 30 yards. … I felt defenses was exposing me because they knew I couldn’t throw the ball downfield.”
Newton was shut down for the team’s final two games, a rarity for him. He has started 122 of a possible 128 regular-season games since Carolina drafted him in 2011. He’s never played fewer than 14 games in a season, but he has often played through injuries. He entered the 2014 season with a hairline fracture in his ribs and then suffered foot and ankle injuries before fracturing his back in two places in a car crash. (Somehow, the crash only forced him to miss one game. He was also involved in an accident last year in which his Ferrari got hit by a dump truck.) In 2016, Newton suffered a concussion (which also cost him just one game) that sparked a debate about whether he was officiated differently than other quarterbacks. That same year, ESPN Stats & Info calculated Newton had taken by far the most hits of any quarterback since he entered the league in 2011, and that it wasn’t particularly close (831 hits from 2011 to mid-2016, 55 percent higher than second-place Russell Wilson). Later in 2016, Newton suffered a partially torn rotator cuff against the Chargers while diving to try to make a tackle on an interception in Week 14. He finished the year despite Carolina being out of playoff contention and opted to have surgery on it the following March. With that same shoulder still bothering Newton two years later, it’s unclear whether that injury ever truly healed, or whether Newton will regain the arm strength he had before that interception.
Those shoulder woes have come just as the cavalry has arrived. For years, Carolina’s offense consisted of Greg Olsen and not much else. When Newton won MVP in 2015, the Panthers’ leading pass catchers were Olsen, Ted Ginn Jr., rookie-year Devin Funchess (a converted tight end in his second year as a receiver), Corey Brown (who lasted one more NFL season), Jerricho Cotchery (his final NFL season), and tight end Ed Dickson, plus Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert in the backfield.
In 2019, that group looks quite different. Carolina has finally added a plethora of offensive playmakers. 2017 no. 8 overall pick Christian McCaffrey has blossomed into one of the best running backs in football and finished third in yards from scrimmage (1,965) in 2018. The team used the no. 24 pick on Maryland wide receiver D.J. Moore in 2018, who was second on the team to McCaffrey in targets, receptions, and receiving yards as a rookie. The team also drafted versatile Ohio State receiver Curtis Samuel no. 40 overall in 2017. Samuel’s second year was disrupted by surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat in September, and he had improved mightily toward the end of the 2018 season. Tackle Taylor Moton, drafted in the second round of 2017, was one of the best pass blocking tackles in football last year and a vast improvement over the recently released Matt Kalil, or as New Orleans defensive end Cam Jordan calls him, “Speedbump McGee.”
The Panthers added to their makeover this offseason by signing receiver Chris Hogan, exercising the 2019 option for Torrey Smith, and then helping out the defense with pass rusher Bruce Irvin in free agency (plus defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who signed a one-year deal with Carolina on Monday). The team also drafted Florida State pass rusher Brian Burns in the first round and Ole Miss offensive tackle Greg Little in the second round, but it was Carolina’s third-rounder that drew attention: West Virginia quarterback Will Grier. Grier’s arrival is less of an indictment of Newton’s health and more of a statement on Carolina’s inability to find an adequate backup quarterback in free agency (plus with Grier’s skill set and positional value, he was a worthwhile pick for any team in the late third round). Grier is not a threat to take Newton’s job unless Superman’s shoulder flares up again.
If that happens, the Panthers will be in a sticky situation with the 2011 no. 1 overall pick, though they can look to how the Colts have handled the 2012 no. 1 overall pick for some optimism. Andrew Luck’s mysterious shoulder saga that ended with him missing the entire 2017 season has made every quarterback shoulder surgery a detective case, and while Newton’s situation isn’t as mysterious as Luck’s (unless Newton has also been hiding a snowboarding injury), it certainly didn’t help that Tepper played out a hypothetical that if Newton needed to sit out the entire year to become healthy, the team would be OK with that. After a lot of palace intrigue, Luck returned in 2018 and had his best season in years. Carolina seems to have learned from Indy’s mistakes—don’t put out timelines or let your quarterback near ski mountains.
If Newton’s shoulder is once again a problem in 2019, it will certainly be a factor in his next contract. Cam has two years left on the five-year deal with $41 million guaranteed at signing and a $103.8 million base value he inked in June 2015. This season is Newton’s last before he and the Panthers likely strike a deal in 2020. Carolina is unlikely to move on from Newton, but Tepper has repeatedly said that cap flexibility is a top priority for the Panthers. If Newton’s 2019 season is once again marred by shoulder issues, the team may structure the deal in a way that allows it to end the contract after just two or three seasons. It may seem cold, but if the Panthers quarterback throwing a football is still a noteworthy story this time next year, they may not have a choice.