Shoulder surgery another reminder Cam Newton is not 'Superman'

Concern for Cam Newton (1:51)

Jemele Hill and Michael Smith discuss on SC6 whether Cam Newton's rotator cuff surgery will be a problem for the Panthers going forward. (1:51)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Before anyone blames Cam Newton's 2016 throwing struggles on a shoulder injury, one that we learned on Tuesday will require surgery, consider this:

The Carolina Panthers quarterback completed 48 percent of his passes over the final four games, including a Week 14 win against San Diego in which he suffered the partially torn rotator cuff. His percentage in the previous three games was 44.8 percent. The 2015 NFL MVP was well on his way to a career-worst 52.9 completion percentage before the hit, though the offensive line was in shambles and would have made it tough on a lot of quarterbacks.

That Newton needs surgery for the second time in four offseasons explains why coach Ron Rivera was so insistent late last season that the offense evolve with Newton less involved in the running game.

It's no secret that Newton takes a pounding. He has been hit more than any quarterback since he entered the NFL as the top pick of the 2011 draft.

It isn't even close. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton has been sacked or hit 922 times. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is second in that span, at 615.

Newton handled the hits well as a young pup. He admittedly felt safer running from defenders outside the pocket or on read-option plays up the middle than he did while throwing inside the pocket.

He probably still feels that way. But with Newton set to turn 28 in May, it's time for the Panthers to protect their franchise player, the one general manager Dave Gettleman still believes can take Carolina to the "promised land."

Evolving the offense to give Newton fewer runs out of the read-option is the way to go, even though the read-option has been a big part of his success in both college and the NFL.

He needed only 79 games to become the NFL's all-time leader, with 32 games in which he threw and ran for a touchdown. It took the previous record holder, Hall of Famer Steve Young, 169 games. Newton's 48 career rushing touchdowns in six seasons also blew away Young's mark of 45 -- in 15 seasons.

Young never ran the read-option, though he told me two years ago that he wished he had the opportunity. Most of his runs were on rollouts from the West Coast offense or quarterback sneaks. Young didn't take the punishment Newton did in the pocket, either. He was sacked an average of 23 times a season. Newton's average is a whopping 36.8.

The best way to reverse that is for Carolina to evolve into a scheme that calls for more play-action and more two-back or two-tight-end sets.

Investing more in better linemen, particularly at tackle, is a good place to start. Signing left tackle Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million deal, whether you think it's too much or not, showed that Gettleman is serious about protecting Newton.

Newton also has to improve his footwork and accuracy. His 61.7 completion percentage in 2013 is the best of his career, and it was only the second time he has finished at 60 or better.

Young topped 60 percent in 10 seasons, including a career-best 70.3 percent in 1994, on the way to a career average of 64.3. Newton is at 58.4.

This isn't to say 60 percent is a magic number. Newton completed only 59.8 percent of his attempts when he had a career-best 35 touchdown passes to go with 10 rushing touchdowns in his MVP season.

Better protection and a willingness to take what team owner Jerry Richardson called the "gimme throws" will help Newton complete more passes and keep the offense moving forward. That might also lengthen his career.

Newton might celebrate rushing touchdowns with the "Superman" move, but he isn't the "Man of Steel" when it comes to getting hurt. His upcoming shoulder surgery, after he had an ankle surgery during the 2014 offseason and a concussion that sidelined him for a game this past season, is proof of that.

Newton has a 12-16 week rehabilitation program, which will cut it close for training camp. It's similar to the schedule he experienced with his ankle.

Perhaps while rehabbing, Newton can get himself mentally prepared for a career as more of a pocket passer. It isn't a concept he has dealt with before, though Rivera said in 2014 that the Panthers had to "adapt and develop a different style."

That lasted until a Week 5 game at Cincinnati in which the Panthers needed Newton to run. He carried 17 times for 107 yards and a touchdown after carrying only 14 times for 42 yards in the first four games.

For Newton's sake, Rivera needs to stick to his 2017 plan of letting his offense and quarterback evolve. The latest surgery should be a good reminder of why.