Cam Newton was a full participant in practice Friday, and even though he’s listed officially as questionable under the league’s broad new injury report rules, he should be ready to play against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, provided he gets clearance from an independent neurologist per the league’s concussion protocol.
It wouldn’t only be good news for the Panthers, but perhaps a final hope. At 1-4, Carolina sits three games behind the Atlanta Falcons in a NFC South it has won the past three seasons. Despite what numerical odds say, it’s extreme to believe the Falcons have anything wrapped up with the needs they still have at pass rush. And if any roster is built to rattle off a winning streak, it’s the one that started 14-0 last season.
But for the Panthers to have any chance, they need their MVP. Not necessarily the guy who threw 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more last season. But they do need the player who means incrementally more to them than any other player does, the one who has the ability to lift up what’s crumbling around him.
Newton has only played in spurts this season as he’s adjusted to defenses coming after him off the edges and knocking him around. His passing has grown more erratic as his receivers out wide have largely become Kelvin Benjamin and not much else. He has missed running back Jonathan Stewart, as well.
But Newton and Stewart could be back Sunday, and perhaps no game gets an offense going again like one against the Saints in the Superdome. The Carolina defense showed in last week’s 17-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers it is above the onslaught it suffered against the Falcons, the one the Panthers are pinning largely on recently cut cornerback Ben Benwikere. The front seven remains loaded enough that when James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are manning the cornerback spots, the whole unit still has the potential to play quite well.
But Carolina is not likely to outduel Drew Brees in his building without its elite quarterback. Getting Newton back will be one step, but the Panthers also have to find ways of eliminating the hits that have defined Newton’s season so far. After suffering the concussion on a careless upright stroll into the end zone against the Falcons, Newton should be ultra-aware of the potential for unnecessary hits. The Panthers can help out their struggling tackles with more of the help blockers they used last year, as well as quicker passes, but so much of that depends on the balance they’re able to create running the ball and the ability of wideouts not named Benjamin to get open early in the route.
The Panthers are three games back, but with Atlanta traveling cross country to face the rested Seattle Seahawks, that deficit could become two in a few days. Better than that, one big performance in the Superdome playing the style of misdirection running, play-action passing game that has the Panthers at their best could be the launching pad they need to save a season on the brink.
It could also be where it falls further into the ground. So much depends on Newton’s ability to return and the Panthers’ ability to keep him there.