Time to unleash Cam Newton once again

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's becoming a regular segment of Ron Rivera's Monday afternoon news conferences.

When will you turn quarterback Cam Newton loose?

Each week the Carolina Panthers coach indicates Newton, who underwent left ankle surgery in March and suffered fractured ribs in August, is getting healthier and closer to that moment. But each Sunday the play-calling does nothing to show Newton has reached that point.

Over the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Baltimore he has rushed a combined four times for 14 yards. In three starts, a player who accounted for 31.1 percent of Carolina's rushing the past three years, has 33 yards on eight carries. That's about one percent of the rush offense.

Newton has become such a fixture in the pocket that it looks like he's almost scared to run.

Rivera said it's tempting to turn Newton loose. It has to be more so after consecutive losses in which the Panthers have been outscored 75-29.

"But we have to do things the right way,'' Rivera said on Monday, 24 hours after Newton rushed two times for 7 yards in a 38-10 loss at Baltimore. "You don’t want to unleash him unless he’s ready to be unleashed.

"We’ve got to listen to what the trainers and doctors are saying, and we’ve got to listen to what he’s telling us.''

Newton's lack of mobility isn't the only reason the Panthers rank 29th in rushing and 32nd in red zone efficiency. The offensive line has been way too inconsistent and injuries have sidelined the top three running backs -- DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert -- for much of the year.

But the shackles on Newton have at least contributed to the struggles in both areas. His 28 rushing touchdowns over the past three years rank third only to running backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.

"I wish I could say, 'Hey! We're going to cut him loose this week!' '' offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "I don't want to lie to you.' That's something we're going to talk about this week. It's something we have to monitor every week for sure. But he's getting healthier and ... we'll see.''

It's understandable the Panthers are being cautious. It's well documented that Newton has been hit more than twice as many times (467) as any other quarterback over the past three seasons.

It's also well documented that the Panthers want to cut back on those hits.

But there comes a point where Carolina has to let Newton be who he is, and that's a quarterback who makes plays with his legs and his arm. If they don't then forget about signing him to a long-term deal.

“It’s very hard,'' Rivera said of holding Newton back. "You can see it. You just know he wants to cut loose and do certain things. You can feel it, and a lot of times you see him start to do it, but it’s coming. We’ve got to do this the right way.”

That has been the theme since Newton sat out the first game to give his ribs one extra week to heal.

The upside to this is Newton is completing 63.8 percent of his passes, up from his 60.0 career percentage. He hasn't thrown an interception. He has made throws, such as the 26-yarder to Jerricho Cotchery in which he threaded the ball past the cornerback on Sunday, he wouldn't have made four years ago.

But he's still getting hit a lot. He has been sacked nine times in three games, putting him on pace to be sacked 45 times in 15 games. He was sacked 43 in 16 a year ago.

If Newton is going to get sacked, he might as well do it while attempting to gain yardage.

Maybe this will be the week.

"As he gets healthier and healthier, the offense is going to start to expand,'' Rivera said. "That’s the best part, too. That for us is a huge plus. But if we don’t take care of what we need to get corrected running the ball and stopping the run, it’s going to be a long season for us.

"These are things that we know, these are objectives we have, and we’re going to work on those things.”