By Mark Maske
The Washington Post
(TNS) — The Carolina Panthers are in trouble, only two games into their season.
Quarterback Cam Newton doesn’t look right. His early-season play has failed to put the injury-related questions about him to rest.
And the Panthers are 0-2, with two losses at home in a five-day span, after they failed to manage a touchdown and lost Thursday night to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 20-14.
Remember when Newton was the league’s MVP and took the Panthers to the Super Bowl in the 2015 season? Remember when the Panthers resembled contenders in the first half of last season? Even that’s a fading memory. They’ve gone 1-9 since , following last season’s 6-2 start with a 1-7 finish and beginning this season with defeats to the Los Angeles Rams and the Buccaneers.
Losing to the Rams, the defending NFC champs, is one thing. Losing at home to the Buccaneers is quite another.
Newton spent this week answering questions about his surgically repaired shoulder after failing to have a completion longer than 17 yards against the Rams. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder in January, less than two years after undergoing surgery on that same right shoulder for a partially torn rotator cuff.
He said during the week that he felt good. The questioning about the soundness of his shoulder had become bothersome, he said. He joked that the Panthers had not thrown the ball down the field against the Rams because offensive coordinator Norv Turner must have drafted tailback Christian McCaffrey, and not him, in his fantasy league.
Newton did connect on some throws down the field Thursday night, teaming with tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Curtis Samuel for some big gains. He had 333 passing yards. But there were other issues. Newton’s accuracy wasn’t good. He connected on only 25 of 51 passes. He made many errant throws and also lost a fumble. The Panthers scored on only four field goals and a safety.
Newton also suffered a foot injury during the preseason. He had zero rushing yards on two carries Thursday and now has minus-two rushing yards on five carries this season. On the game’s biggest play Thursday - fourth down and less than a yard from the Tampa 2-yard line with just more than a minute to play - the Panthers put the ball in the hands of McCaffrey, not Newton. McCaffrey was stopped for no gain after taking a gadget-play direct snap.
“We had every opportunity,” Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said at his postgame news conference. “We thought we could at least get the first down. And unfortunately we didn’t.”
Rivera was adamant that the play call was not made because of the soundness of Newton’s foot.
“Don’t even worry about the foot,” Rivera said. “The foot’s got nothing to do with it, okay?”
Not everyone is convinced it’s such a non-issue. Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin said on the NFL Network’s postgame show it’s clear to him that Newton is playing hurt.
“There is no doubt,” Irvin said. “There is no doubt now. I don’t think it’s his arm. I think it’s his leg. … He’s out there, I think, like Greg Olsen. They’re fighting for their team and they’re not 100 percent.”
It was the Panthers’ third failed fourth-down attempt of the game. They also went three for 14 on third-down conversions.
The Buccaneers’ Jameis Winston outplayed Newton in a matchup of former Heisman Trophy winners and top overall NFL draft picks. Winston rebounded from his three-interception performance in Week 1 with a turnover-free outing. He threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Godwin. Tailback Peyton Barber added a touchdown run for the Buccaneers, who evened their record at 1-1 with their first victory under their new head coach, Bruce Arians.
“Our defense [did] a great job all night,” Winston said on the NFL Network’s postgame set. “We just had to protect the football and we got a great win.”