CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was a hot, muggy afternoon in May and Cam Newton was in the middle of his annual celebrity kickball tournament at Bank of America Stadium when the Carolina Panthers quarterback was asked how his game was going to change as he approached his 30th birthday.
He didn’t hesitate.
“I’m not changing,” said Newton, who was recovering from January shoulder surgery. “I think I’m too old to change.”
Fast-forward to Sunday’s regular-season opener at the same site, where the Panthers lost 30-27 to the Los Angeles Rams.
Newton rushed only three times for a career-low minus-2 yards. Only one of those runs was designed for the 2015 NFL MVP, who has more rushing yards than any quarterback since entering the league in 2011. None of those plays came on the read-option.
Asked how he felt about having so few run plays called, Newton deadpanned, “Great.”
Newton also didn’t complete a pass longer than 17 yards, a career first. His longest throw in terms of air yards was 26, an incomplete pass intended for Curtis Samuel on a wheel route on a third-and-6 in the fourth quarter.
For much of his first eight seasons, Newton was the most dangerous dual-threat quarterback in the league who before shoulder issues could toss a football 60 or 70 yards with little effort. That wasn’t on display Sunday.
“I’m not going to get into any philosophical discussion about throwing the ball downfield because that’s not what this game is about,” Newton said. “I took what the defense gave me. I go through the specific reads in a timely manner, and that’s how I always play.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after the contest that the lack of quarterback runs and deep throws had nothing to do with Newton being limited, and the ankle injury that forced him out of the third preseason game at the New England Patriots also was not an issue. Rivera re-emphasized that on Monday as the Panthers began a short week of preparation to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night.
“I think it’s more about decisions he makes out there,” Rivera said. “It’s the quarterback, the guy with the ball in his hands, who dictates where the ball goes more so than it does anything else.”
It still begs the question: Is the deep ball in Newton’s arsenal?
“Of course,” Newton said Tuesday. “But if it’s gonna hinder us from winning, I don’t wanna throw it. But if it’s gonna make us win? Oh, baby. You better call some doggone deep balls. But I’m all for it, man. I just can’t stress enough, man, you just can’t … just throw the ball in the heaven and just expect it to be caught. There’s more to it than that.”
Newton seemed to take the questions about throwing deep personally.
“How about this: You talk to the defensive coordinator for Tampa, and don’t think I can throw the ball over 20 yards, and see how far that gets you,” Newton said. “How about that?”
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians doesn’t question Newton’s arm strength, saying Newton wouldn’t be playing if he couldn’t throw it more than 20 yards.
“He’s got all the tools,” said Arians, adding he doesn’t want to find out if Newton can throw deep in Thursday’s game at Charlotte. “He’s ready to go.”
To be fair, Newton wasn’t the only quarterback who didn’t utilize the deep pass in a league where dink-and-dunk passes are becoming the norm. He was one of six quarterbacks who didn’t complete a pass of 20 yards or longer on Sunday.
But Newton’s one attempt from that range tied the Minnesota Vikings‘ Kirk Cousins and the New Orleans Saints‘ Drew Brees for the league low — and both of the other QBs won their games. Cousins threw only 10 times in a 28-12 home victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Newton’s percentage of throws 20 yards down the field was a meager 2.6, as compared to an average of 12.0 for the rest of the league in Week 1, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Brees’ percentage was 2.3, but he completed his lone pass of longer than 20 yards downfield against the Texans for a 41-yard gain on the way to a 370-yard night.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Detroit Lions‘ Matthew Stafford had five completions of 20-plus yards on 11 attempts. New England’s Tom Brady had two passes travel 40-plus yards in the air, including a 58-yard touchdown. Brady completed 3 of 4 attempts of 20-plus yards, prompting him to say afterward, “We all dig the long ball.”
Newton didn’t seriously attempt to stretch the field on Sunday, even after the Panthers made speedsters Samuel and DJ Moore their top two receivers. Running back Christian McCaffrey had an amazing game, rushing 19 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns and leading the team with 10 catches for 81 yards.
“I just wanna win, in the worst way … straight up,” Newton said. “I don’t care if I throw a ball at all. If handing the ball off to C-Mac or whoever. … I just wanna win, man.”
However, as Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders said on NFL Network on Sunday, it’s a problem when a team’s leading receiver is a running back, because that means the offense is not stretching the field vertically and keeping defenses honest. Carolina has an 0-10 record when McCaffrey has seven catches or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.
Newton, who played in just four series this preseason, admitted his game showed some rust. He also acknowledged he has to be “more accurate and settle in” when taking shots downfield, such as the one to Samuel.
“There’s a lot of first-game jitters, so to speak,” Newton said. “But all in all, we know what we have to do. And for it to be fresh on our minds, in my mind, I know exactly the things, and we will be better from it.”
Statistics show there are advantages when Newton is a dual threat. The Panthers are 8-11 in games in which he has rushed for fewer than 10 yards and 60-43 when he rushes for 10 or more yards.
On a positive note, Newton said he came out of the game with no soreness in his shoulder, an injury to which had forced the Panthers to shut him down for the final two games last season.
“That’s what I’m most optimistic about and happy,” Newton said. “Being able to gauge the throw. My body feels fine, and you know whatever play was called, I felt confident.
“I didn’t even think about my shoulder at any particular point, so that’s a good sign. But I still have got to stay on top of it, as well as my foot.”