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Cam Newton is not right this season and things are getting worse

Newton isn’t complaining about his shoulder, but the Panthers quarterback doesn’t look like himself.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers are 2-1 after a 34-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints. That puts the team a game behind the 3-0 Atlanta Falcons, but still in a spot where it’s too early to panic.

However, if things don’t get better for Cam Newton soon, it’s hard to imagine the Panthers getting far.

Newton finished the loss to the Saints — a team that gave up 1,025 yards and 65 points in the first two weeks — with 167 passing yards and three interceptions.

A week ago, he led the Panthers to just nine points against the Buffalo Bills and even during his Week 1 performance that featured two touchdowns and one interception, he didn’t look like himself.

“It’s gut-check time,” Newton said after the game. “As far as preparation, it may be performance, it may just be a small changeup. Things on the offensive side have to be better. I am proclaiming that it will. Moving forward, there is no need to panic.”

What exactly is wrong is a harder question to answer.

The obvious concern is Newton’s shoulder. The 2015 MVP had surgery in March, began throwing in June, and didn’t appear in three of Carolina’s four preseason games. In his only appearance, Newton threw just two passes.

But the plan all along was to get Newton ready for the regular season and — even if Week 1 wasn’t the smoothest performance — it wasn’t a disaster. Things appeared on track after a 23-3 win. However, his time in practice and declining play has told a different story about his recovery.

Cam Newton practices in 2017

Day Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Day Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Wednesday Full participant Full participant Limited participant
Thursday Full participant Limited participant Limited participant
Friday Full participant Full participant Limited participant
Status Questionable Will play Questionable

The 43.8 passer rating for Newton on Sunday was the third-worst passing performance of his career and his worst in three years. It came after he practiced on a limited basis all week leading up to the game.

The Panthers say it’s just a new approach to getting the quarterback ready for the game, but it appears to tell a story of a player who isn’t 100 percent.

“At the end of the day, we are professionals,” Newton said. “I would not have not wanted to play today. I feel as if, where my mental frame was, I was ready to play. It was just the circumstances that took place.”

It’s difficult to speculate exactly what Newton feels in his shoulder or the confidence he has in it. There were other circumstances that contributed to the Panthers’ tough day offensively. The team already lost Greg Olsen to a broken foot and was without Kelvin Benjamin after the receiver suffered a knee injury Sunday.

It was essentially up to Devin Funchess and Christian McCaffrey to be the targets for Newton in the pass game.

But on the few passes when Newton tried to really fire the ball, it’s tough not to believe that his arm isn’t responding the same way it did in the last two seasons. His highest velocity attempts have come out of his hand telegraphed and inaccurate.

The good news for Carolina is that the injury for Benjamin appears to be minor, and McCaffrey has been an increasingly dangerous weapon for the offense. The bad news is that the slate of opponents isn’t going to get any easier for Newton and the Panthers.

The team will play road games in four of the next five weeks, beginning with trips to play the 2-1 New England Patriots and 2-1 Detroit Lions. If Newton’s play doesn’t pick up soon, the Panthers’ 2-0 start could quickly fizzle to a record below .500.