CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Cam Newton admitted he was a "little rusty" coming off a shoulder injury that ended last season early.
But Newton's season debut Sunday raised questions about whether this was rust or a carryover from 2018, when the shoulder problem turned the 2015 league MVP into a shell of his former self.
Los Angeles linebacker Clay Matthews said the Rams came into the game expecting "MVP Cam."
Instead, they got the watered-down version.
Similar to the second half of last season, Newton didn't throw the ball downfield much in Carolina's 30-27 loss to the Rams. His longest completion went for 17 yards. His one attempt at a semi-deep pass — about 30 yards through the air — sailed over the head of wide receiver Curtis Samuel.
And Newton the runner was nonexistent.
The NFL's third all-time leading rusher among QBs was held to a career-low minus-2 yards on three carries. The Panthers only called one designed run for the 30-year-old Newton, a quarterback draw. That's uncharacteristic for a player who has made a living off the zone read option and who has more touchdowns rushing than any QB in NFL history.
He didn't scramble much and was sacked three times, losing 23 yards.
Newton said after the game he never thought about his surgically repaired right shoulder during the game. He practiced all last week and was not listed on the injury report after suffering a mid-foot sprain in the team's third preseason game, so that was believed to be a non-factor, too.
"I've got to get on the same page with everybody," Newton said. "But, all in all, we had our opportunities today. I think that's the most frustrating part. Because you feel this is your time."
Newton hadn't played since Dec. 17, sitting out the final two games when it became apparent he couldn't throw the ball more than 20 yards downfield.
He showed he could air it out in training camp with a handful of 40- and 50-yard passes, but that was without pass rushers racing his way. Despite having a speedy crop of young wide receivers that includes D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, Newton elected not to test the deep waters, although coaches insist he has that opportunity if he wants it.
"I'm not going to get into no philosophical discussion about throwing the ball downfield because that's not what this game is about," Newton said. "I took what the defense gives me. I go through the specific reads in a timely manner. You don't call plays. You don't say to coach, 'Hey coach, let's throw the ball deep and see where that gets us.' That's not our mentality."
Newton finished 25 of 38 for 239 yards against the Rams, but he had a backward pass to Moore that resulted in a fumble inside the Panthers 10-yard line, and an ill-timed interception with 5:55 left in the game on a pass attempt to tight end Greg Olsen. The defender on the play, linebacker Cory Littleton, called Newton "readable" — and that he read him well.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Newton "had his moments."
"At the end of the day when you get opportunities you have to capitalize," Rivera said.
Carolina's loss overshadowed an impressive outing from Christian McCaffrey, who looked extremely fast while racking up 128 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 19 carries and 81 yards on 10 receptions.
"I think offensively as a group, outside of Christian, we have a lot of work to do," tight end Greg Olsen said.
Newton remains confident he will bounce back Thursday night against Tampa Bay.
"I have to settle in," Newton said. "There's a lot of first-game jitters, so to speak. All in all, we know what we have to do, and for it to be so fresh on our minds, I know exactly we'll be better from it."
If he's not, the Panthers could be in for a difficult season.