SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Very impressed with Cam Newton on Sunday. Very impressed. Impressed with his real talk with the hard-core fans during training-camp practice breaks in the end zone near the woods on the Wofford College practice field. Impressed with a couple of 35ish-yard completions (one with a little mustard to darting wideout Curtis Samuel), in his third real football practice since his January rotator-cuff cleanout arthroscopy. Impressed that his mechanics and form look more precise and practiced. And impressed that, at age 30 and with a warning shot (the surgery) about his mortality fresh in his mind, he’s moving to the next phase of what still could be a dominant run for him.
This is one of the things that impressed me in a post-practice conversation: He doesn’t think he has to be Cam Superman anymore. (I’ll explain why he’s absolutely right.) He may be a different quarterback than he’s ever been—maybe; I’m certainly not sure of that—but the answer to a question about his arm strength speaks volumes about where Newton is right now.
I asked: “Do you worry that you’ll never have the fastball you had, let’s say, in 2016?”
“This is what I do know,” Newton said, sounding placid. “You can look back at any type of player. You can look back at any type of sport and as a player grows, your game has to change. I remember reading and seeing a lot of clips about Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Brett Favre, even Peyton Manning to a degree. When you get old, you have to change certain things. It kind of keeps you young. I actually look forward to it. I embrace this whole process because it’s made me feel like a rookie again. Learning certain things, learning new mechanics, focusing on the little nuances of playing a quarterback position and trying to master it. So at this point in my career, it’s not about velocity. It’s not about throwing a ball 70 yards. It’s about efficient football that’s gonna win football games.”
That’s part of why this was such an educational day at Panthers training camp.
Sunday, mid-practice, Newton tossing with a ballboy, keeping his arm warm. He’s precise. He’s not out here jacking around, throwing sidearm, just to throw. There’s a purpose. Windup, exact overhand throw, follow-through. Serious business. I don’t see a lot of Panther practices of course, but Newton, on Sunday, was more serious and precise with his work than I remember. Even though he was carrying on conversations with fans—not just one-liners, but 30 or 40-second chats—practice was business-like.
You may not remember this, but when Peyton Manning was struggling with his neck injury and recovery post-Indianapolis, he got some advice from Bill Parcells, which I’ll paraphrase: You know who Jamie Moyer is? Soft-tossing major-league pitcher. He’s found a way to have a long career without having even a good fastball. Work on your lower-body strength, use your legs to help your arm strength, and just find a way to win. You’re smart enough to figure it out. Manning did, and it was enough in Denver to cap his career with a Super Bowl win four years ago, even though he was a contributing player on that title team, not a dominant one. Who cares? Denver won it all—coincidentally against Newton’s Panthers.
It’s silly to think of Newton as some hobbled guy who won’t be able to summon up greatness and the ability to throw deep effectively. He had his shoulder surgery in late January, spent most of the offseason simulating his throwing motion or throwing a small football, and is obviously still rehabbing and recovering for the season. But he knows he doesn’t have to be Scherzer; he can win in other ways, particularly because of short-passing weapon Christian McCaffrey.
It’s actually a work-in-progress that started in 2018, when the new offensive staff—coordinator Norv Turner and son/QB coach Scott Turner mostly—began working to make Newton’s throwing motion more precise. “People in football would notice, but maybe a fan wouldn’t,” Scott Turner said Sunday. “Cam historically had a throwing motion where it was very open, where he put a lot of stress on his shoulder. Now he’s worked to close it up, which relieves a lot of pressure on his arm. He can still throw with a lot of velocity. But he is getting used to a little bit of a new way. The shoulder, being a little more closed. If you stay closed, with the right weight transfer and upper body movement, your shoulder’s not going to be stressed as much.”
In the first three months last year, Newton’s completion percentage (.696) was 10 points better than his career number (.598); his passer rating at the end of November, 103.7, was four points better than his MVP year of 2015. Clearly, he was a willing student. Some of the credit goes to McCaffrey with his 107 catches in 124 targets. Some goes to the willingness of Newton to be coached, to learn and to change. “It’s given me a different type of confidence, knowing that we got the personnel. … All I have to do is just get the ball in their hands,” Newton said.
But the good performances were masking a continuing shoulder issue, one that he couldn’t hide any longer in his last three games. The Monday night game in Week 15, a 12-9 loss to the Saints, was excruciating to watch. Newton couldn’t break a pane of glass with his throws. Of his 29 passes that night, one (one!) traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Ever watch a fight being dominated by one boxer, and you get to the ninth round, and you’re yelling: Throw in the white towel! End this thing! With the Panthers 6-7 that night and still in the playoff hunt, coach Ron Rivera—and Newton—figures Newton at 55 percent still gave Carolina the best shot to win.
That didn’t make it easier to watch.
“As a quarterback in this league,” Newton said, “you’re unanimously the leader, right? We needed that game. I felt as if I wanted to give my team everything that I had honestly. Being hurt, being injured … looking back at it, it probably wasn’t the smartest, efficient thing, knowing that I left it all out there on the field. And if you asked me if I’d do it again, I’d do it again. I just know my worth to this team—know how much these guys believe in me and how much I believe in them. If I’m willing to do that, and I know I’ve seen other guys do the same thing, too.”
The surgery in late January was a significant clean-out, but Newton felt better right away. “Cam and I came in together, in 2011,” coach Ron Rivera told me. “And so I can read him pretty well. The day after, he motioned his arm [moving the arm in a throwing motion] and gave me this look. It was the kind of confident look in his eyes I’ve seen before.” But as Andrew Luck can tell you, there are no guarantees post-shoulder-surgery about when you’ll feel right and when you’ll feel you can cut it loose. Or if you can. So it’s premature to say what we’ll see in Newton in six weeks for a really tough opening stretch: Rams at home on opening Sunday, Bucs at home four days later. Yikes. Imagine a short-week game, coming off shoulder surgery against the defending NFC champs … and after being chased by Aaron Donald for three hours.
Newton called his current state “still a work in progress. One thing about the shoulder and constant moving, constant muscle manipulation, constant trying to get your range of motion back: You can’t mimic real life reps. This [training camp] is actually the first time I’m actually throwing to moving targets, things like that. … Now it’s another phase. You gotta work on throwing the deep pass. You gotta work on throwing on opposite fields, something that you haven’t been doing for so long because you’re just trying to perfect the small kind of intimate, intermediate throws.”
The only time in our conversation that Newton bristled a bit was when I wondered how he’d feel if he couldn’t be the old Newton. Understandable … because even Newton doesn’t know exactly what his shoulder’s going to feel like this fall.
“See,” he said, “it’s still speculation. You know, at the end of the day, God has possessed me with things that I’m grateful for. … Now, being older, you kind of look at things different. For me, it’s not that I’m limited with certain things, or that I’m not capable of doing certain things, it’s just other ways to do it. I’m not saying I’m not gonna run people over. I’m not saying I’m not gonna run the football. I’m not saying I’m not gonna throw the ball down the field. I’m just in a position now where none of that matters but one thing, and that’s winning football games. If it requires me to do all those things, I’m willing to do it. And if it doesn’t, I’m still fine with that.”
If I’m a Panthers’ fan, I like what I see out of Newton six months after surgery. I like what I hear just as much.