CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There might be debate about whether the Carolina Panthers should play Cam Newton over the final three games given the ongoing soreness in the quarterback’s right shoulder with the team’s playoff chances fading.
Newton isn’t having any part of that.
Asked after Sunday’s 26-20 loss to Cleveland, Carolina’s fifth straight setback since a 6-2 start, about concerns regarding his shoulder, Newton deadpanned: “Who is it coming from?”
Told from people outside the organization, Newton said, “Exactly.”
Asked specifically if he wanted to continue to play this season, the 2015 NFL MVP said, “Next question.”
That was the appropriate response.
The Panthers (6-7) still have a path to a playoff spot, and Newton gives them the best chance to get there. You don’t sit your franchise quarterback as long as there’s a chance, unless there are concerns about damaging the shoulder long term.
There don’t appear to be.
The big picture as far as the playoffs becomes more clear after Minnesota (6-6-1) lost at Seattle on Monday night. Carolina is now a half game back of the sixth and final seed in the NFC.
The Panthers still likely would need to win their final three games — home against New Orleans on Monday night, home against Atlanta and at New Orleans — to have a shot. That seems like a long shot since New Orleans (11-2) is battling the Los Angeles Rams (11-2) for the top seed in the NFC.
But say the Panthers get past New Orleans and Atlanta, and the Saints are locked into the first or second seed heading into the final week. Saints coach Sean Payton could rest his starters, which would increase Carolina’s chances of winning in New Orleans.
Even if Carolina wins out, it would need Minnesota and Washington (6-7) to lose once more. The Vikings close against Miami, Detroit and Chicago. The Redskins, down to their third quarterback and losers of four straight, close with Jacksonville, Tennessee and Philadelphia.
So there is a path, and Newton is the only quarterback who can lead the Panthers down it.
That doesn’t mean the shoulder isn’t a concern. Newton didn’t throw on Wednesday or Thursday last week and has missed at least one day throwing in each of the past seven weeks.
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That, according to a former NFL executive, “is not a plus.” Back when Newton first began getting rest days after throwing 22 times in the fourth quarter of a comeback win in Philadelphia, Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner admitted that being limited over a long period isn’t ideal.
“That’s a dangerous thing,” Turner said in October. “The longer you have to do it, the more difficult it gets to play.”
Last week, Turner admitted that Newton being limited in practice has “been challenging.”
“He’s doing a good job of it, and we’re trying to manage it the best we can,” he said.
Newton’s lack of deep throws also is concerning, although Turner said last week that that has a lot to do with defenses taking those throws away.
Regardless, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton is on pace for a career low in completions of 20-plus yards. He has converted only nine of 33 attempts for a 27.5 completion percentage that ranks 28th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks.
He’s far below the league average of 38 percent.
Newton’s Total QBR on throws of 20-plus yards this season is a dismal 17.7. He was at 87.4 and 92.2 his first two seasons in the league, and at 94 during his 2015 MVP season.
His previous low was 32.1 in 2013.
But Newton’s overall performance, outside of a four-interception game against Tampa Bay two weeks ago, has remained solid. He didn’t have a great game against the Browns, twice missing his receiver in the end zone from the 3-yard line with just over two minutes left.
He was intercepted on his final throw with 57 seconds left.
But he still completed 68.2 percent of his passes, and the interception appeared to be a miscommunication with wide receiver Devin Funchess, who earlier in the game admittedly made a mistake that cost the Panthers a chance to take the lead.
To Newton’s credit, he didn’t throw Funchess under the bus.
“It was more about understanding how the defense maps out whether you are [the] hot [receiver] or not,” Newton said. “Just like I said [earlier], executing.”
Newton will have to be at his best to get past the Saints in a prime-time game at Bank of America Stadium. Having an extra few days to rest the shoulder should help.
But there should be no debate about sitting Newton as long as the Panthers have a chance to make the playoffs.
So, next question.