FOXBORO, Mass. – If someone asked you, "What's the worst thing that could come out of the Panthers' preseason game against the Patriots," you would've answered "an injury to Cam Newton," right?
Well, that worst-case scenario happened when Newton hurt his left foot on Carolina's third drive.
But as Newton left the stadium in a walking boot, there was some good news. X-rays had come back clean, and the sense was Newton and the Panthers had dodged a bullet, though he's set to undergo further evaluation when he's back in Charlotte on Friday.
It's unclear what exactly happened to Newton on his final play of the night. After running around to avoid pressure, he eventually went down. Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler was credited with a sack, but he didn’t appear to land on Newton’s foot.
The mystery wasn't cleared up in the locker room afterward.
"I have no idea. I know nothing," said tight end Greg Olsen, who's dealt with his own foot issues the past two seasons.
"Every injury is so different. It's hard to project what anyone else is going through. I'm not a doctor, nor do I have any knowledge of what he has. It'd be irresponsible to comment on it."
Whenever a star — especially a quarterback — is injured in the preseason, it's impossible not to wonder about the worth of these games.
Some players are OK with the risk.
"I think the preseason's worth it," running back Christian McCaffrey said. "I think there's definitely some benefit to getting out there and getting a few reps.
"Personally, I enjoy it sometimes. But I understand why you don't (need it). I think there's different arguments to each one."
Like the argument head coach Ron Rivera made earlier this month.
"Training camp used to be where you had to bring everybody (somewhere) and get them into shape. Now they're in shape and it's about managing (the risk of injury)," Rivera said during joint practices with the Bills. "I'm not sure that playing as many (preseason) games is as important as it used to be."
Then, Thursday night happened.
"It's part of the game, unfortunately," Rivera said. "We've just got to take a look at it. We'll see what the league decides, but this is tough."
Because it's unlikely preseason games will be scrapped anytime soon, the best players can do is cross their fingers while teams and fans hold their breath waiting for Week 1.
"It's always good to be able to get some good reps in," right guard Trai Turner said. "But it is also the two evils of it when you come out with little nicks and bumps and bruises, and it's like, 'I could've been fresh coming into Week 1 expecting that to happen but not going into it with those.'"
The Panthers didn't play Newton, McCaffrey, Olsen or linebacker Luke Kuechly the first two weeks of this preseason and sat pretty much their entire starting lineup in their opener — something that hadn't happened under Rivera in his previous eight seasons. But Thursday was a frightening reminder of what could go wrong before games count, even if it could have been a lot worse for Newton than early signs indicate.
"Preseason's tough. It's the balance of getting some live action that you don't quite get. We do everything in practice right up until the last minute. You don't get sacked, you don't get tackled, you don't get hit in the open field – but you do everything up to that," Olsen said.
"I think you're starting to see the attitude of the NFL, in general, deemphasizing the preseason as a whole. But those things are above my paygrade. I just play when they tell me to."