Why Panthers need answers on Cam Newton's shoulder sooner than later

The deep pass used to be one of Cam Newton's strengths, but in 2018, the QB was 0-for-11 on throws of at least 30 yards. Scott R. Galvin/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- This isn't to suggest Kyle Allen is the solution at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. This isn't to suggest the undrafted rookie out of the University of Houston is better than Cam Newton.

This is to suggest there were a couple of things said by coach Ron Rivera after Sunday's finale, a 33-14 victory against New Orleans in which Allen led the Panthers to touchdowns on his first three drives, that indicate how serious Newton's sore right shoulder is to the team's immediate future.

Let's look at them individually:

Rivera: "As far as the offense, it speaks very well to what the potential is for this offense going forward."

What does this mean? Allen completed two passes of 30 or more yards against the Saints, including a 53-yard touchdown to Curtis Samuel. Newton, according to ESPN Stats & Information, was 0-for-11 on throws of at least 30 yards in 2018. Newton also ranked 29th on throws that carried at least 20 yards, completing nine in 14 games. He was last among qualifiers in TD-Interception ratio on those throws at 33 percent (1 touchdown, 3 interceptions). Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs this season, seven ranked among the top 10 in completions that carried at least 20 yards.

New Orleans, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, led the way with a percentage of 52.8 on those throws. With the exception of the Ravens, who had 16 completions that carried at least 20 yards, the other 11 playoff teams had between 18 (Patriots) and 37 (Chiefs). As running back Christian McCaffrey said, having the deep threat is "huge."

"That's a whole other part of the game that defenses have to honor and you have to scout for when you have speed like we do," said McCaffrey, who led the team in receptions with 107. "Stretching the field has a huge impact on the game."

The deep pass used to be one of Newton's strengths. He completed a career-high 32 passes that carried at least 20 yards as a rookie in 2011. He had 26 in 2015 when he was the NFL MVP and the Panthers were the league's No. 1-scoring team. He has had a combined 25 the past two seasons in which the Panthers have had to rest his shoulder during the week so he could play on game day.

So if the deep ball doesn't return to his arsenal, it might indeed be time to move on.

Rivera: "One thing we have to understand about a lot of these young players coming out of college football ... is that a lot of these guys are throwing it 40-50 times a game. When you throw that many times, you are put under a tremendous amount of pressure. With all the scrutiny they get, too, in the media, they are really learning how to deal with and cope with those things. That's why you see guys like Baker Mayfield having the type of year he's having. You see guys that seem to get it a lot sooner."

What does this mean? Let's start with throwing it 40-50 times a game coming out of college. Mayfield averaged 31.1 throws a game between his time at Texas Tech and Oklahoma before Cleveland made him the first pick of the 2018 draft. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the front-runner for NFL MVP this season with 50 touchdown passes, averaged 42.1 throws in three years at Texas Tech and 36.2 attempts this season. Rams quarterback Jared Goff averaged 42.3 throws a game at California.

Newton had only one full year in Division I football. He averaged 20 throws a game at Auburn in 2010 when he won the Heisman Trophy. He had a big arm, but he had to throw it at least 25 times only twice, his final two games when he had 28 throws against South Carolina and 34 against Oregon in the national championship game.

He relied mostly on his legs and a strong running game in general. Newton's legs are the double-edge sword part of this: Because he's led all quarterbacks in runs by a big margin since entering the league eight years ago, he has taken far more hits than any quarterback. So the wear and tear of hits to his shoulder in addition to averaging 31.6 throws in the NFL have taken a toll. With the passing game becoming bigger than ever -- seven of the 12 playoff teams rank in the top 12 in passing yards -- the Panthers need a quarterback they can count on through 16 games and in practice leading up to those games. As offensive coordinator Norv Turner said when Newton started resting the shoulder in practice this season, that can be dangerous over time.

Rivera: "Whatever is going to be decided, I'd like to see them do it right away. ... I would tend to agree with Coach [Turner], the sooner the better.

What does it mean? Rivera was responding to uncertainty over whether Newton will require a second shoulder surgery (he had one during the offseason prior to the 2017 season) and Turner saying there is a "sense of urgency" to get Newton's shoulder issue resolved so the Panthers don't have to shelve him as they did the final two games this season.

If there is a second surgery, Newton would be faced with what he went through in 2017 when he couldn't throw during offseason workouts and was limited during training camp. That surgery wasn't performed until March, which made it almost miraculous Newton made it through the 2017 season despite requiring rest during the week. If surgery is needed again, and there is no indication that is the case at this point, Newton would have an additional two months to recover. There's also the chance Newton could miss an entire season as Andrew Luck did with the Colts. Luck had shoulder surgery in January 2017 and missed the entire 2017 season.

The good news here is Luck is coming off a strong 2018 season. Pro Football Focus ranked the 2012 No. 1 pick third behind Drew Brees and Mahomes this season with an overall grade of 91.1. Luck completed 29 of 69 pass attempts of at least 20 yards and played in all 16 regular-season games. PFF ranked Newton 21st with a grade of 70.9 even though Newton completed a career-best 67.9 percent of his passes, well over his career average of 58.5. The rating was affected by Newton having the fifth-highest turnover-worthy throw percentage from a clean pocket (3.49) among qualifiers.

The Panthers' sense of urgency is they need a quarterback who can play and help win all 16 games this coming season. That's why Rivera wants answers sooner than later. If there is any doubt about Newton in 2019, the Panthers must find a quarterback through free agency or the draft. Allen proved worthy of consideration, but he would be a risk with only one NFL game on his résumé and against a New Orleans team with nothing to prove. It will be hard to lure to Carolina a proven quarterback such as Philadelphia's Nick Foles or even New Orleans' Teddy Bridgewater as long as Newton has a chance to be the starter. That further complicates the situation.

This isn't to suggest the Panthers should release Newton, who has two more years left on his contract. This simply is to suggest how serious Newton's shoulder is for the immediate future of the organization.