Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said in late October that he has a “body prayer” before each game, in which he goes over his various joints and ligaments and says a quiet word of blessing on them.
When it comes to his surgically repaired right shoulder, however, Newton might be joined in “body prayer” this week by legions of Panthers fans, the coaching staff and his own teammates.
Newton played at least three games with a partially torn rotator cuff in 2016, and then had surgery to repair it in March of 2017.
Soreness from the repair and rehabilitation process still bothers him, and the Panthers adjusted his throwing schedule for the entire 2017 season to limit his practice throws. In Week 8 of this season, Newton had to go back on that schedule because the soreness had returned.
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Head coach Ron Rivera called it “the new normal.”
But this lingering pain was something Newton didn’t expect back at the time of his surgery, he said on Wednesday.
“My thing is, ‘just fix it,’” he said. “So when they go in and do surgery, I’m pretty oblivious to the recovery time.
“And I would not have expected me to still have kind of things that are lingering from that. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. It’s about managing pain and understanding that you have a job to do.”
Newton said in retrospect, he would not do anything differently.
But did Rivera expect, back then, that Newton would be experiencing this soreness now?
Rivera cut off a question — and an attempt at clarification — twice before responding tersely with his thoughts about the present, although the question was in regard to the past.
“I can’t tell you that,” he said. “We’re dealing with something that we don’t know a lot about, in terms of I’m not a doctor. I can tell you my shoulders are fine, but I can’t tell you how he feels. I can’t tell you what to expect. Because I’m not the one who is a doctor.”
These days, everyone, Newton and Rivera included, clearly expects Newton to have to deal with the soreness.
Factoring in the shoulder?
Newton didn’t pop up on the injury report this season until Week 8, after a 21-point comeback to beat the Eagles during which Newton threw for 201 yards on 22 attempts in the fourth quarter alone.
With 400 pass attempts in 12 games, Newton is throwing the ball an average of 33 times per game, just shy of his career-high in passing attempts per game (34, 2016). With the Panthers playing from behind and forced into passing situations so often over the past four games, Newton has thrown the ball 34 times per game in that span, on average.
Rivera has indicated in the past few weeks that throwing the ball more is a factor in Newton’s shoulder soreness.
But did coaches factor in Newton’s shoulder when re-tooling the Panthers’ offense this year?
Rivera did not want to comment on that.
“I think those are things that you guys have to determine for yourselves or ask somebody else,” he said. “But I can’t tell you that.”
Early on, Turner’s system leaned away from heavy reliance on the deep ball Newton was known for, and instead worked to create explosive plays with short and intermediate passes, favoring playmakers who can gain yards after the catch. It’s also been a checkdown-heavy offense, with running back Christian McCaffrey leading the team in catches with 80.
That offense has been extremely productive, especially in the past four weeks (despite all four games resulting in losses). The Panthers rank fourth in total yards and third in yards per play in the league during that span, and their offense sits at No. 11 overall on the season.
So Newton has also not been unduly worried about missing the deep ball, and also indicated that teams are playing the Panthers to at times remove the option for going deep.
“At the end of the day, I would hope that somebody would allow me to throw the ball downfield, from a defensive philosophical mentality,” he said. “If that happens, then we’ll see. What I’m not about to do is go out there and just chuck galore.”
He did not even seem concerned about his absence during Hail Mary attempts.
The Panthers have attempted two this year but failed both. Newton opted out of the throw at the end of the first half against Baltimore, and threw one attempt at the end of last week’s loss to Tampa Bay that went about 55 yards in the air. The Panthers attempted a second throw 5 yards closer, this time by backup Taylor Heinicke (who also threw the attempt in Baltimore), and it just barely crossed the goal line but was incomplete.
“I think it’s just him being mature and saying, ‘Hey, I can’t get it to the end zone. Let’s give Taylor a shot because he can get it there,” Heinicke said.
Playing through pain?
Newton’s shoulder status has been a gray area for five weeks, with one point of clarity: He is now playing through pain each week. That, he said, is part of being in the NFL.
“This is the National Football League. So there’s 100 percent chance, 100 out of 100 times, that you’re going to get hurt. Whether it’s a turf toe, a jammed finger, it’s a sprained ankle, whether it’s plantar fascia …” Newton knocked on the wooden podium, and then smiled.
“Whether it’s hurt feelings. You are going to get hurt. In this league, you just have to learn how to manage pain and just take your mind to a place where, you know, you’re just managing it.”
Newton said he’s not technically “injured.” He’s “hurt,” same as everybody else in the league.
“After Week 2 or Week 3, there’s no person that has played the percentage of snaps, that plays upwards of 90 of 100 percent of the time that can say they’re 100 percent,” he said. “A man, at some particular point, hits a wall where they have to get a lot of treatment on certain things.”
And that could mean further limitations.
Could it even mean benching Newton with his health in mind, if the Panthers’ playoff hopes die?
Rivera indicated that he and his coaching staff have not had that discussion yet. Carolina still has a sliver of a chance to get into the postseason, and Newton maintains that he is healthy enough to play, starting this Sunday at Cleveland.
“At the end of the day, he’ll do what he can and we just have to be ready to do something different if we have to,” Rivera said. “I think that’s probably where we’re going to get to. I’m not sure yet, but we’ll see how it goes.
“We’re not there yet.”
And after that, does Newton think he’ll need another surgery on the same shoulder?
“Amongst other things,” he said, a little tongue-in-cheek, before becoming more serious. “I can’t confirm nor deny.
“But at the end of the day, I just know that I’m healthy enough to play. I’m not going to let nothing hold me back from being able to help my team. I definitely don’t want to be a liability. I just want to make sure I’m putting myself and this team in the best situation to win football games.”