It’s time to start worrying about Cam Newton. If that wasn’t clear before the Panthers’ 20-14 home loss last night to the Buccaneers, it’s obvious now. The only question is whether Newton is injured or washed.
All told, Newton completed just 48 percent of his passes last night, finishing the game with a 69.1 passer rating. He has yet to throw for a touchdown in two games, and he’s already taken six sacks. Per Pro Football Focus, his adjusted completion percentage—which measures accuracy by accounting for drops, throwaways, spikes, batted passes, and throws while being hit—is just 65.8 percent, which ranks 26th in the league. Perhaps even more worryingly, Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones noticed that he’s having a lot of difficulty throwing down the middle or to his right: an 80.8 percent completion rate on throws to the left side of the field that dips to 56.7 in the middle and just 40 percent to the right. He’s not running the ball anymore, either: just five attempts for minus-2 yards through two games.
And at the end of last night’s game, facing a fourth-and-1 from the Bucs’ 2 with 1:28 to play, offensive coordinator Norv Turner took the ball out of Newton’s hands entirely. The knockoff Philly Special that ensued, with running back Christian McCaffrey taking a direct snap and faking the pitch to wideout Curtis Samuel before darting outside, was thwarted.
Afterward, Newton refused to make any injury-related excuses:
“I feel OK,” Newton said after the Thursday night game when asked if he felt comfortable running the ball. “You’re not going to hear no type of reasons why tonight didn’t go as planned. I have to be better. No matter what physical condition I’m in, no matter what foot or shoulder, I didn’t get the job done tonight. It’s frustrating, and I wish I could say something other than that but that’s the facts.”
“No, his foot is not such that we don’t trust [it],” Rivera said. “Don’t even worry about the foot. The foot has nothing to do with it.”
So what is it? In Week 1, Newton attempted just one pass of 20 yards or more, per Pro Football Focus. But that may have been by design. Last night, Newton had nine throws of 20 or more yards, and 50 attempts total—enough volume to suggest the shoulder trouble might be behind him. But his timing and his accuracy are not right.
Pressure affects all quarterbacks, and Newton saw pressure on 32.1 percent of his dropbacks last night, per PFF. But the impact of that pressure—especially from Bucs edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, whom PFF credited with three sacks, one hit, and four hurries—was severe: Newton completed just 2 of 14 passes when pressured.
Now take these back-to-back passes to open receivers early in the fourth quarter, both of which were clean-pocket throws:
The big-bodied Newton has staked his career on being able to run with the ball in addition to throwing it; he’s closing in on Randall Cunningham for second place in career rushing yards among quarterbacks. But Newton, in his ninth season, has also endured a great deal of punishment. Now 30 years old—still relatively young in an era in which many other QBs are playing effectively into their late 30s and even 40s, in part by not getting hit so much—Newton had shoulder surgery in January for the second time in less than two years. He’s also had ankle surgery, broken ribs, and multiple head injuries. He fractured two vertebrae in his back during a 2014 car crash. And he’s just three weeks removed from having sprained the middle of his left foot. It’s hard to remember Andrew Luck and his reasons for retiring without wondering about Newton, too.