CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is headed to the bench.
The team made the decision to shut down the 2015 NFL MVP for at least one game and possibly the remainder of the season due to lingering soreness in his right shoulder.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Taylor Heinicke will make his first career start when Carolina (6-8) hosts the rival Atlanta Falcons (5-9) on Sunday. Kyle Allen will be Carolina's backup, with Newton inactive.
Rivera said he made the decision to sit Newton after meeting with owner David Tepper, general manager Marty Hurney, team doctors and Newton on Wednesday morning before practice.
"It was a good conversation with Cam, and he understood our thinking behind this," Rivera said. "He's disappointed and he's frustrated. You know him, he wants to play."
But Rivera said a "healthy Taylor Heinicke" gives the Panthers the best chance to win this weekend. He hasn't made a decision about Newton's status for the regular-season finale at New Orleans (12-2), saying the focus is on the Falcons.
The Panthers have lost six straight games and are all but out of playoff contention as Newton has struggled with an unknown shoulder problem. He had surgery in March 2017 to repair a partially torn rotator cuff and has had trouble ever since.
The Panthers have limited his reps in practice for most of the season, and it's rare when he throws the ball more than 20 yards downfield in a game.
Newton has started 14 games and thrown for 3,395 yards with 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions this year. However, he has just nine touchdown passes and nine interceptions during Carolina's six-game skid and has looked uncomfortable in the pocket.
After Newton's noticeable struggles in a 12-9 loss to the Saints on Monday night — the eighth-year pro was limited to 131 passing yards and struggled throwing the ball with any zip — Rivera pulled the plug on him.
In the past, Newton has fought hard to keep the Panthers from sitting him when he's battling through injuries. This time was a little different. Newton accepted the idea of taking a break and getting the rest without putting up a fight.
"I think that is because of the frustration of it," Rivera said. "More so than anything else, he knows that once he gets sore, once he gets tired out there, it's tough for him to do the things that he is capable of."
Newton was not made available for comment Wednesday, but he discussed how difficult it's been with not knowing what is wrong with the shoulder after the loss to the Saints. He said he doesn't know if he will need surgery after the season.
Four-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner said "in a sense, I'm happy that he's able to get himself together now."
Running back Christian McCaffrey said Newton has been a "warrior" all season while playing through significant pain.
As for Newton's long-time friend, center Ryan Kalil, he said as difficult as the decision is, it is a smart move for the organization when it comes to the long term.
"He's still a young guy, and he's got a lot of football left in him," Kalil said. "I think it is important to get that right, especially at his position. It's no secret that he has been struggling with it the last month or so. But I feel bad for him. I feel terrible for him."
Heinicke has appeared in six games and thrown just five passes since joining making his NFL debut in 2015 with the Minnesota Vikings. He has stepped in to throw a few Hail Mary passes this season for the Panthers because Newton's shoulder wasn't strong enough to get the ball downfield.
Wide receiver Jarius Wright said other teams have been able to defend the Panthers differently with Newton at quarterback, knowing he wasn't going to throw as long as he has in the past.
Wright said defensive backs on other teams have told him "we're not scared of you guys going deep."
"They have actually mentioned that multiple times," Wright said. "So having Taylor out there on Sunday will keep everyone on their toes."