SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The Wofford College portion of training camp was winding down on Wednesday and the energy level had dipped as the temperature soared. That’s when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton unloaded a deep pass to Curtis Samuel.
As Samuel and fellow wide receiver DJ Moore performed a high-flying hip bump in the end zone, Newton turned to the crowd on the hill and put his hand on his ear to get one last eruption of cheers before the mad rush up Interstate 85 to Charlotte, N.C.
Samuel might have been the MVP of camp with his blazing speed and daily long catch, including one in each of the past two days in joint practices against the Buffalo Bills, but it was Newton’s ability to get the ball to the third-year player that will be remembered.
Newton admittedly couldn’t throw passes of longer than 30 yards effectively — or without pain — at the end of last season. There was concern after a second shoulder surgery in three offseasons that he might not be 100 percent for start of the 2019 campaign.
This camp ended any doubt about his health.
“It’s like night and day,” said Buffalo defensive back Captain Munnerlyn, who was with the Panthers last season. “His arm looks a whole lot better now. Man, to see him come back from that injury, I know it’s been tough on him.
“To see him come back like he’s doing, I expect big things from him.”
So do the Panthers, who were 6-2 last season before Newton began having shoulder issues that ultimately led to him being shut down the final two games.
“He just seems healthy, happy and ready to go,” Moore said. “I do see some change, as you can see with the deep balls to Curtis. We’re just here for the ride with his arm. That’s what’s going to keep us going.”
A year ago, defenses loaded up and dared Newton to throw deep when it became apparent he couldn’t. The Panthers couldn’t hide that the deep ball had disappeared from their arsenal, having to bring in backup Taylor Heinicke multiple times for Hail Mary passes at the end of a half or game.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner lamented that part of the offense was missing and how that had an impact on his game plan.
Newton showed in the first practice of camp the arm strength had returned, connecting with Samuel for a pass that carried more than 40 yards. He reinforced it with a 50-yarder to Samuel on Tuesday and then Wednesday’s crowd-pleaser.
“Cam, he looked great,” Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson said. “He had a great camp. Throwing the ball really well, competing really well, taking care of his body really well. The days he wasn’t going, he was still over there working and trying to help us win games.
“We need [No.] 1 to win games.”
Newton only spoke to reporters once in three weeks of camp and downplayed his recovery by saying he still was “a work in progress.” He talked about the importance of remaining focused on a tighter, more closed throwing motion that the staff hopes will take pressure off the shoulder.
That throwing motion was at its best during Wednesday’s practice, when Newton was 5-for-5 in one drill that caught the eye of coach Ron Rivera.
But it wasn’t just the deep passes that made this camp valuable to Newton. It was being able to work with the offensive line and receivers on timing, something he couldn’t do all offseason while rehabbing.
“That’s the most important thing,” Rivera said. “He’s got to develop that feel for timing, for making things happen. Again, it’s really about being familiar.”
The Panthers know how good Newton can be when his shoulder is healthy. He completed almost 68% of his passes the first half of last season after averaging 58.5% his first seven seasons.
He was playing, in his words, the best football of his career — better than his 2015 NFL MVP season, when he threw a career-best 35 touchdown passes and rushed for 10 more.
Samuel said it was “very important what Newton did in camp because he showed he could go down the field, not just underneath.”
“You’ve got to be aware of the whole field now,” he said.
So is night and day, as Munnerlyn said, accurate?
“If he’s going to call it night and day,” Rivera said with a smile, “I’m going to go with it and leave it on Captain.”