Panthers excited to get their leader Cam Newton back on the field

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton was face down on the grass as a trainer stretched his back, legs and arms, a normal part of his daily routine before practice and games.

The Carolina Panthers quarterback bobbed his head – and much of the rest of his body -- to keep up with the beat of the warmup music. And he did it so hard on this day that it made the trainer’s job more difficult than usual.

This was Monday morning, and the 2015 NFL MVP obviously was excited.

For the first time in weeks he and his surgically-repaired shoulder were going to be turned loose in team drills. For the first time in weeks, he was going to throw to receivers running routes of longer than 15 yards.

For the first time since last season, he was preparing for a game.

Newton will start Thursday night's preseason game at Jacksonville, his first snaps in live competition since the Panthers lost their 2016 finale at Tampa Bay to complete a 6-10 season.

His presence on the field will bring comfort to those that had their finger on the panic button the past three weeks as Newton spent more time throwing to trainers than his receivers.

This will let those who wondered if Newton truly would be ready for the Sept. 10 opener at San Francisco know sthe sky isn’t falling.

The Panthers did the right thing by bringing their franchise quarterback back slowly from offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff. Now it’s time for everyone to see what Newton can do with all the new toys the organization surrounded him with during the offseason.

Nobody is more excited than Newton.

“Cam loves football, man,” wide receiver Russell Shepard said. “Regardless if it’s practice, Thursday night [preseason], anytime he can go out and lead this team and show his talent and play the game which changed not only his life, but his family life …

“One thing I’ve learned in my short time with him is he loves football. He’s going to be happy.”

Coach Ron Rivera will be happy to have Newton standing next to him for a preseason game in a uniform and not sweats. He is as excited as anyone to see what the offense can be with No. 1 and his new weapons.

“I am excited because it will be an opportunity to see him with all the different type of players we brought in, the playmakers we thought we had,” Rivera said. “It should be fun.”

Rivera will be even more excited if Newton doesn’t experience soreness or fatigue in the shoulder after the game so he can start preparing for the opener.

Evolving the offense to depend less on Newton as a runner and more on other playmakers has been the focus of the offseason. Newton has kept himself mentally involved even though he hasn’t been able to consistently throw in practice.

It’s all been part of a plan not to rush Newton back and cause a setback.

So far, so good.

“He does a really good job going from film room to the field,” Shepard said. “He hasn’t been on the field as much as he has previous years, but he’s been overtime in the film room and meeting room with us.”

Thursday night will give Newton an opportunity to dust off the rustiness he experienced on Monday in team drills. He already showed signs of recapturing his timing and decision-making on Tuesday.

“I really am confident this group will come together,” Rivera said. “The sooner they all get out there and work together, the quicker we’ll know.”

Rivera believes this offense can return to the dominance it showed in 2015 when the Panthers led the league in scoring (31.3 points per game). The addition of first-round and second-round picks Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel will help.

McCaffrey, the No. 8 pick out of Stanford, has shown an ability to make plays as a running back and receiver. He had a 17-yard touchdown run and 38-yard reception on a screen pass in Saturday’s preseason loss at Tennessee.

Samuel, a wide receiver out of Ohio State, has been recovering from a hamstring injury and, like Newton, could see his first preseason action on Thursday. Like McCaffrey, Samuel has the speed and wow factor that adds another dimension to the offense that already had playmakers in Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, wide receiver Devin Funchess and running back Jonathan Stewart.

But getting Newton on track from a disastrous 2016 season that statistically was his worst will be key.

Thursday's game is another step.

“It’ll be nice to get our full squad,” Olsen said. “Start putting some ideas out there that we’re going to do as we move forward.”

Shepard in particular can’t wait to get in a game with Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft. He is a big reason Shepard left Tampa Bay in free agency to come to Carolina.

“It’s a team sport, but certain players bring an element to the game which can’t be replaced,” Shepard said. “He’s one of those guys. His energy, his style of play, his playmaking ability both with his legs and his arm, it does wonders for this team.

“We look forward to having our leader back out there.”