With Cam Newton's deep ball on ice, Panthers turn to backup QB

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- That coach Ron Rivera said backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke gives the Carolina Panthers their best chance of winning on Sunday against Atlanta speaks volumes as to how much Cam Newton's right shoulder is hurting.

It says what has been speculated for weeks, that Newton's inability to throw the deep pass is hurting the Panthers offensively.

"It's funny, because some of the DBs actually tell us on the field we're not scared of y'all throwing deep," wide receiver Jarius Wright said on Wednesday. "They've actually mentioned that multiple times. Just having [Taylor] out there keeps everybody honest."

Newton has completed only nine passes of 20 yards or more this season, which ranks 29th in the league. He has no touchdowns and five interceptions throwing 15 or more yards during Carolina's six-game losing streak that has left the team with a 6-8 record and virtually eliminated the Panthers from playoff contention.

What was once a strength of the 2015 NFL MVP has become a detriment to the offense. It's not only allowing defenses to ignore the deep threat, it's allowing them to stack the box against Newton as a runner.

Newton hasn't rushed for a touchdown in the past seven games and he's topped 33 yards rushing only once in that span. In the first seven games he rushed for four touchdowns and had more than 33 yards six times.

So in essence, two of Newton's strengths have been taken from him because of the shoulder that underwent surgery during the 2017 offseason.

That never was more painfully obvious than in Monday night's 12-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints. In what basically was Carolina's last hurrah to make a playoff push, Newton rushed five times for 15 yards and had a season-low 52.5 passer rating.

He hurt the Panthers more than he helped them.

Center Ryan Kalil said it was obvious during film review Newton "couldn't do it."

Newton, according to Rivera, didn't put up a fight when told he was going to be shut down this week and likely the final two games. He has put up a fight in past weeks when this possibility was discussed.

That also spoke volumes about how sore the shoulder is.

"I know any time this has been brought up this season, there's been no instance he's wanted to entertain it whatsoever," Kalil said. "Knowing his mind, he feels he'll be letting his teammates down.

"I can't speak for Cam, but knowing him as long as I have, I know he's frustrated and I know he's disappointed for himself and his teammates."

Heinicke, although he's thrown only five passes in two NFL seasons, has a cannon of an arm -- despite being four inches shorter than the 6-5 Newton -- and is mobile.

Wright, who played with Heinicke at Minnesota, can't wait for the 25-year-old to show the rest of the world what he can do. He also can't wait to have the deep threat reinstated into the offense, something that has been a staple of offensive coordinator Norv Turner before this season.

"The guy can throw the heck out of it," Wright said of Heinicke. "He does a great job of reading coverages and making quick decisions. A lot of people don't realize he can move. He's not a sitting duck back in the pocket."

Newton has been a sitting duck. He was sacked nine times over the past three games and 19 times over the past seven after being sacked only 10 times the first seven games.

The decision to sit Newton also speaks volumes about the Panthers' playoff chances. They will be eliminated with a loss, a Minnesota win or a win by Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington.

Their playoff odds are 1.1 percent.

That the odds aren't 0 percent is the only reason Rivera left the door cracked that Newton could play in the final game at New Orleans and why he wouldn't discuss long-term medical implications. If there's a decent chance a win could get Carolina in and the shoulder is feeling better, Newton could play in the finale.

It's unlikely, but as Rivera said, "crazy things can happen."

Understand, while this was the smart decision, it wasn't made in the best long-term interest of Newton. If that were the case Rivera would have made it clear his franchise quarterback wouldn't play the final two weeks and the Panthers would have put Newton on injured reserve.

So Rivera, whose future as Carolina's head coach could be at stake over the final two weeks, is keeping his options open by keeping Newton on the 53-man roster.

"We're at the point where this is the best thing for the short term," Rivera said. "And we'll see what happens."