CHARLOTTE, N.C. — 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.
For the better part of three quarters, Todd Gurley was barely visible.
Then the two-time All-Pro running back showed up in a big way to carry the load when the Rams need him most. He ran for 64 of his 97 yards in the fourth quarter to help Los Angeles grind out a 30-27 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Gurley's carries were truncated late in the Rams' NFC championship season due to knee soreness, causing some question about his durability heading into 2019. And after Gurley gained just 8 yards on five carries in the first half, there was even more head scratching.
But Gurley seemed to catch his stride with a 25-yard burst in the third quarter. And with the Rams protecting a 3-point lead with 10 minutes remaining, Gurley carried four straight times, picking up 41 yards to set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Jared Goff to Tyler Higbee - the difference on the scoreboard.
Gurley added a first down in the final two minutes, allowing the Rams to run out the clock.
"It was four-minute situation," Gurley said of his mindset. "Get a first down, get out of here and go back to L.A. with the win."
Prior to that, Malcolm Brown carried the vast majority of the load for the Rams (1-0) and finished with 53 yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns. Brown had just one touchdown rushing in his previous four seasons combined with the Rams.
Rams coach Sean McVay said it was great to see Gurley "close it out."
He said the running back situation - and Brown getting the goal-line carries - was a matter of rotating his running backs.
"He had some great runs, running through some arm tackles," McVay said of Gurley. "You could see the explosion once he gets to the second and third level. He made some great runs."
In all, the Rams ran for 166 yards on 32 carries.
"When you play an offense like this you've got to do a better job in the run game and we've got to get turnovers," said Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Goff threw for 186 yards and was picked off once and Cooper Kupp had seven catches for 46 yards in his return from a torn ACL last November.
McCAFFREY'S BIG DAY
Christian McCaffrey was the star of the day for the Panthers, racking up 209 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns on 29 touches, picking up where he left off last season.
Rams two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald said that was disappointing.
"I'm just not satisfied, I'm just not happy," Donald said. "That's just the way I played and there are things we can do better. ... But I'd rather build off of what we did wrong in a win than a loss."
Newton had a costly helmet malfunction on a third-and-7 play in the first quarter after the Panthers had returned to the field following a timeout. That resulted in a delay of game. The Panthers then lost a yard on a conservative draw play and undrafted rookie Joey Slye missed a 53-yard field goal.
Rams free safety Eric Weddle left the game in the second quarter with a head laceration after trying to tackle a leaping McCaffrey. The running back kneed Weddle in the head.
"When you lose somebody like him, it can be deflating," McVay said.
McCaffrey said he went to check on Weddle after the game.
IN THE BOOTH
Popular former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme began working as an analyst for Carolina's radio broadcast team.
Rams: host Saints on Sunday in rematch of NFC title game.
Panthers: have short turnaround before they host Buccaneers on Thursday night.
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