Cam Newton stunned the NFL and single-handedly revived the hopes of the Carolina Panthers’ franchise with his 422-yard passing performance Sunday in a 28-21 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
But as promising as the Panthers’ future looks, the more immediate question is how Newton will play over a long rookie season, beginning this week against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
Newton’s impressive NFL debut included setting a record for passing yards in a game by a rookie in his first start. But he will have to buck NFL history to turn a standout opener into a great rookie season, because the more games he plays, the more game tape defenses will have to study what he does and doesn’t do well.
This week, he’ll face a seasoned and successful defensive coordinator in Dom Capers, whose players have been working in his system going on three years and finished 2010 ranked No. 2 in the NFL in scoring defense and No. 5 in fewest yards allowed. Last week, Newton faced Ray Horton, a former Pittsburgh Steelers assistant who runs the same scheme as Capers but is in his first year with the Cardinals and first year as a coordinator.
“It gets tougher this week, no doubt,” said Chad Pennington, the recently retired 11-year NFL quarterback who was color commentator for Fox’s telecast of the Carolina-Arizona game. “The difference in college, you have a tough game where the talent was equal to your team and the next week the talent may not be equal to your team, so it’s a little bit of a mental break. In this league, there’s no mental break. They’re facing a team that’s as talented or more talented than they are every week. We’ll have to see what happens.”
NFL history says the odds are strongly against Newton playing well regularly this year: Only 10 rookies who started at least eight games finished the season with a passer rating of at least 80 points, and only four had ratings of at least 90 points.
Two of the four who topped the 90-point mark were rookies in the All American Football Conference in the late 1940s: the legendary Otto Graham, who had a rating of 112.1 for Cleveland in 1946, and Y.A. Tittle, whose rating was 90.3 in 1948.
The other two were Ben Roethlisberger (98.1 with Pittsburgh in 2004) and Dan Marino (96.0 with Miami in 1983).
Two of the six with passer ratings between 80 and 90 points were drafted this century, both in ’08: Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (87.7) and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (80.3).
Interestingly, of the players from the 1980s or later listed above, Marino, Ryan and Flacco were pocket passers; only Roethlisberger, like Newton, is a playmaker outside the pocket. Newton has Roethlisberger’s hard-to-tackle size and strength — both are 6-foot-5, and Newton is 248 pounds to Roethlisberger’s 241 — and is a far superior runner.
Newton’s passer rating in the opener was 110.4, and that efficiency was shocking based on his college background and performance in the preseason. At Auburn he played in a relatively simple, option-oriented offense, and though he has a strong arm and completed 66.1 percent of his passes, some pro scouts were concerned about his accuracy in a pro-style scheme. The preseason seemed to confirm those fears when he completed only 42.1 percent of his throws.
But against Arizona, Newton generally made good decisions and put the ball on the money. He completed 24 of 37 passes (64.9 percent) and threw for two touchdowns — both to receiver Steve Smith; one a 77-yarder on a blown coverage that left Smith wide open behind the defense, and the other a 26-yarder.
Newton also threw one interception and had another nullified by a roughing the passer penalty.
“I don’t think anybody ever really saw that from him through the preseason,” said Kurt Warner, the former NFL quarterback and current NFL Network analyst who questioned Newton’s readiness before the game Sunday. “So for him to come out and perform at that level and really played well enough for his team to win that game was extremely impressive and, I think, one of the highlights of Week 1.”
So how to account for the difference from the preseason?
Pennington said that in their talk last week, Newton said he treated preseason games like practice and was working on specific skills rather than overall results. Arm strength never was an issue with Newton, but after playing in an unsophisticated offense in college, the ability to make quick reads was.
“At Auburn, he’d sit there and pat (the ball) four or five times, hitch four or five times,” Pennington said, “where in this system they’ve taught him how to be in rhythm with his drop, and he did that. He dropped back, made his read and the ball was gone. There were times he had to make throws off his back foot because of the pressure, and he was dynamite with it. I was really impressed, him being able to make the throw with somebody in his face or him falling away.”
Newton no doubt will compensate for some of his errors by running — he had eight rushes for 18 yards against Arizona and is capable of converting a third down of any length into a first down with his legs. But tougher days probably are ahead.
Roethlisberger and Flacco, for instance, had the luxury of joining teams with first-rate defenses and didn’t have to take chances to win games as a rookie. Even Marino joined a decent team that was 7-2 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and he didn’t become a starter until Week 6.
Compare that to rookies, like Newton, who joined inferior teams. Peyton Manning, a starter from Day 1 with Indianapolis, finished his rookie season with a rating of 71.2 and a 3-13 record. John Elway started the final 10 games of his rookie season with Denver, finished with a 54.9 rating and threw 14 interceptions to only seven touchdowns. And Michael Vick as a rookie with Atlanta started two of the eight games he played and finished with a 62.7 rating and completed only 44.2 percent of his passes.
Newton showed poise and big-play ability in his first game, including eight completions of 20 yards or more for an offense that last season finished last in the league in scoring and yards. He also got Carolina in position to tie the game in the final 2:20 by driving from his 17 to Arizona’s 11 with 3-for-3 passing and a 1-yard scramble, though he couldn’t score in five plays from there.
Look for Capers to test that poise with everything he’s got.
“I’d tell (Newton), ‘Remember all the defensive looks you got on third down against the Cardinals?’” Pennington said. “‘You’re going to get that against the Packers, and the difference is the Packers have a better defense and a more experienced defense with how to pressure the quarterback.’”