Asked about Cam Newton’s shoulder injury on Monday, Ron Rivera was evasive, as expected. Rivera’s a football coach, he’s worried about his job right now, he’s in the middle of some serious coaching turnover and he can always hide behind the “we’re waiting to hear what the doctors say” excuse. But here’s the bottom line: Cam is hurt and it might be worse than anyone, Newton himself, is letting on.
Sunday was just the latest example of Newton’s shoulder issues, with the quarterback struggling with his accuracy in the Panthers’ Week 13 loss to the Buccaneers, their fourth-straight game dropped in a free fall that left them at 6-6.
Over the last month or so, Newton has looked off. He was first added to the injury report in Week 8 with a right shoulder injury, but it’s the last four weeks where the statistics and the game film merge to show that Newton is battling some kind of shoulder fatigue or shoulder injury.
For the second time, Newton was yanked for a Hail Mary attempt on Sunday. That, as Brady Quinn pointed out on Tuesday’s Pick Six Podcast (it’s a daily NFL show ready for downloading every Monday-Friday at 6 a.m., subscribe right here) is a bit of a red flag.
“Well, when you get pulled — and you’re 6-6 and 200 pounds and you get pulled for Taylor Heinecke to go throw a Hail Mary, yes, clearly you’re hurt,” Quinn pointed out. “There’s got to be something going on with that, right?”
In my mind, there is. Watching Newton throw against the Buccaneers, he was just off. Even on a touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey, a fairly routine throw, the ball moved on Newton some and started to fly away from the running back at the end, almost like a cut fastball. McCaffrey used his “suction cup” hands to scoop it up and dive into the end zone. (Stream Panthers-Browns and all of Sunday’s games on fuboTV, try it for free, and stream the CBS games on CBS All Access.)
The Panthers captured a great photo of Devin Funchess catching his touchdown pass — this was on a routine slant against off-man coverage and this is not ideal ball placement:
You can watch that score here as well and see how off the throw was.
None of this is to blame Cam or act like he’s completed 70 percent of his passes for his career. As Quinn noted, “he’s never been the most accurate thrower” and Cam’s spike in completion percentage has a lot to do with utilizing weapons around the line of scrimmage like McCaffrey and D.J. Moore.
But the ball is coming out differently. It’s like Newton doesn’t trust his body right now in terms of what he’s going to get when he throws. Quinn pointed out it could be a dead-arm issue.
“When you watch him throw, typically he’s this big guy who throws effortlessly right? It looked like the way the ball left his body and arm like there wasn’t much on it. Like he almost had a dead arm,” Quinn said. “Something you would experience in camp maybe, when you’re throwing a ton. Or maybe at this point in the season — people don’t realize between the hits and the amount of throws, sometimes arms need rest because they don’t have enough juice.
“Either way you’re right. I don’t know that he’s looked as healthy or been as close to as 100 percent throwing as we’ve seen in the past.”
This checks out, as thein his throwing shoulder since late October. This is concerning because that’s one of the symptoms, along with “shoulder fatigue,” that Newton was battling when he returned from shoulder surgery ahead of the 2017 season.
Oddly enough, Newton’s baseline statistics haven’t taken a huge dip in the last four weeks. He’s completing 73.7 percent of his passes and is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, along with 276.5 passing yards per game. But there are some underlying metrics here to be concerned about. For starters, his interception rate has spiked over the last four games.
In Weeks 1-9, Newton threw 15 touchdowns against just four interceptions. In Weeks 10-13, Newton has thrown nine touchdowns and a whopping seven interceptions, including four picks against the Buccaneers, one of the worst defensive teams in the NFL.
More concerning are the statistics when Cam tries to push the ball downfield. According to Sports Info Solutions, his production on throws of more than 15 air yards (i.e. the ball traveling 15 yards or more down the field) has plummeted.
Newton Weeks 1-9
Newton Weeks 10-13
Newton’s just been way less accurate down the field in the last month. It makes total sense that if he’s battling shoulder fatigue the Panthers would take less shots (that’s more than one per game less they’re taking despite trailing in many games) and it would makes sense that his accuracy is off. It’s not something wrong with Cam the QB, it’s something wrong with Cam the physical human.
Additionally, the Panthers are running him less. His rushing attempts per game went from 9.1 to 4.5 in the same time span referenced above. It’s only anecdotal to a degree, but it makes sense the Panthers would purposely run him less and try to avoid contact with an already banged-up shoulder. There are only so many collisions a quarterback can take, even one of Newton’s stature.
If you want more proof of the downfield concerns, look at the Next Gen Stats passing chart from Newton’s matchup against the Buccaneers. He has the same number of completions past 15 yards as he does interceptions.
Tampa’s defense had three interceptions coming into this game, ahead of only the 49ers in terms of picks on the season. They shot up the rankings after playing against the Panthers.
If you’re going to expose the Bucs, you do it with shot plays — they have given up 49 plays of 20+ yards on the season. The Panthers couldn’t expose them (although CMC did rip off a long run).
And the reason they didn’t could very well be because of Newton’s shoulder issue. He’s now averaging just 5.2 average air yards per pass attempt, tied with Eli Manning and just above Blake Bortles near the bottom of the leaderboard in that category. That’s not a sign of injury or anything — Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck are also way down the leaderboard.
Let’s be clear here too: Newton can still rip throws. He’s not out there slinging ducks on every passing attempt. He’s one of the strongest humans you’ll ever see and when he gasses up and it connects, he can put the ball in a tiny window. But the variance from throw to throw has increased greatly and that’s a large concern for Carolina’s offense.
The Panthers were always in a tough spot here with three road games in four weeks and a home matchup against a tough Seahawks team. But the combination of Cam’s sudden struggles, his appearance on the injury report, the defense’s inability to slow people down created a poorly-timed losing streak that puts the Panthers in must-win territory the rest of the way out.
It starts with a game against the Browns in Cleveland this week and then a home matchup against the Saints. Lose those two games and there might quickly be a reason to consider resting Newton for the rest of the season.
Listen to Will Brinson and Brady Quinn discuss Cam Newton, the Redskins-Eagles game and much more.