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Cam Newton’s Play Should Put the Panthers in Panic Mode

The former MVP, who underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, was wildly inaccurate in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the team didn’t make use of his rushing ability either. It’s an alarming start for 0-2 Carolina.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Cam Newton is supposed to be healthy. After a 2018 season in which an injury to Newton’s throwing shoulder partially tanked the Panthers’ season, the quarterback underwent arthroscopic surgery to his shoulder in January. That led to a long offseason rehab for the Panthers passer, but Newton has been a full participant in both of Carolina’s games this season. Last week, Newton himself said he felt “like a rookie” again, and head coach Ron Rivera echoed that his QB was “right where we need him to be.”

If you were unfortunate enough to have watched Thursday Night Football this week, you’re probably skeptical of those reports. Against the Bucs, Newton completed just 24 of 50 passes for 324 yards for zero touchdowns and zero picks in the game, showing an alarming lack of accuracy on multiple throws. The Panthers had a chance to win the game, but ultimately lost to the Buccaneers, 20-14, and are now 0-2 despite playing both games at home. And don’t let the 14 points fool you—Carolina kicked four field goals and got a safety; the offense failed to score a touchdown.

Newton’s 324 yards look nice, but the sub-50 percent completion percentage and lack of touchdowns tells the real tale of his night. To get a visual of how Newton fared against Tampa Bay, you don’t need to look beyond his final drive, in which the Panthers still somehow had a chance to win the game. With less than two minutes to go and Carolina in Buccaneers territory, Newton badly underthrew D.J. Moore:

Minutes later, he hit Christian McCaffrey’s feet in a pass that was probably better off falling incomplete anyway:

On the very next play he missed on a pass that could have been intended for either Moore or Curtis Samuel:

Per Next Gen Stats, Cam Newton’s expected completion percentage in this game (based on “receiver separation from the nearest defender, where the receiver is on the field, the separation the passer had at time of throw from the nearest pass rusher, and more”) was 60.7 percent; Newton completed 49.0 percent. That deficit of 11.7 percentage points is the most any quarterback has recorded in a game this season and indicates Newton’s accuracy struggles on Thursday. Unfortunately for the Panthers, this doesn’t look like a one-game fluke: In Week 1, Newton completed 65.8 percent of his passes despite an expected completion percentage of 71.8, a deficit of 6.0 percentage points that was tied for fifth worst in the league—and Newton threw deep just once that week. In 2018, Newton’s completion percentage was 2.5 percentage points better than expected. Cam just doesn’t look like himself throwing the football.

On Thursday, Newton’s issues weren’t just limited to his accuracy. The big, dual-threat passer has been one of the most productive rushers at the QB position in NFL history, yet recorded just two rushing attempts for 0 yards on the night. The Panthers seem to be protecting Newton from hits: Despite multiple short-yardage situations in which a QB sneak from Newton would have been a perfect play-call, the Panthers never ran one.

As Warren Sharp points out, the Panthers have used QB sneaks with Newton more than any other team with their respective quarterbacks, and he converts on those opportunities more than 80 percent of the time. To decline to rush Newton on three occasions in this game isn’t just odd, it’s completely out of character.

Which brings us back to the shoulder. Some of these stats can fluctuate from week to week, and every quarterback can experience a slump, but Newton spent all offseason rehabbing an injured shoulder and is now showing serious accuracy issues and an uncharacteristic aversion to hits. For the 0-2 Panthers, that’s more than a cause for concern—it’s a reason to panic.