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Rookie Newton shows off arm, maturity in historic debut

by | CBSSports.com
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Newton has many impressive plays, including this leaping 1-yard touchdown. (US Presswire)  
Newton has many impressive plays, including this leaping 1-yard touchdown. (US Presswire)  

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Cam Newton's odds were long when he took the field Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Of the 11 quarterbacks selected with the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft since 1998, five had started on opening day of their rookie season, but only one (David Carr) had produced a victory.

Newton didn't become No. 2, but his historic performance on the same field where he won a BCS National Championship nine months earlier, left little doubt that there will be plenty of victories in the future.

Newton completed 24 of 37 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in the Panthers' 28-21 loss to the Cardinals. In doing so, he tied Matthew Stafford's NFL rookie record for most passing yards in a game while becoming the first rookie to throw for more than 400 yards in his NFL opener.

"It's obvious he's a gamer," said Cards quarterback Kevin Kolb, who made his Arizona debut by completing 18 of 27 passes for 309 yards and two TDs. "When the game's on the line, obviously they want the ball in his hands. He's a big, strong, athletic fighter. He's everything you could ever want and they're going to be fine with him."

In the Panthers' locker room following the game, Newton sat at his locker, the picture of dejection, ignoring the media until he was escorted into a separate interview room for an interview that lasted about five minutes.

"One thing I have to work on is trust," he said, shrugging off the hype surrounding his historic debut. "I'm surrounded by a lot of excellent talent. I've got to trust them."

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Newton's ability to make plays with his feet was never in question when the Panthers selected him last April. The former Auburn star proved he could run, including on this very field when he led the Tigers to a 22-19 victory over Oregon.

The question most scouts wondered was: Could they trust him to make good reads and consistent plays with his arm? Neither was an issue against the Cardinals.

"What we saw on tape from his college days carried over," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "Cam was very solid. He gave us an opportunity to win."

New Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton preached all week about staying in lanes to keep Newton contained. The Cardinals did that, holding Newton to 18 yards on eight carries. But Arizona didn't see the other element of Newton's game coming.

"He made some good anticipatory throws," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "He threw a couple before they were even out of their break, especially to the tight end. That was something that you didn't see a lot of in the preseason but he was obviously comfortable with their plan. There's a pretty good reason why he went No. 1."

Newton's biggest pass plays came on a 77-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith off a blown coverage in the Cards' secondary, and on a 26-yard pass to Smith just before the half that gave Carolina a 14-7 lead. On the play, Newton threw a perfect ball out of the reach of fellow first-round draft Patrick Peterson, the Cards cornerback covering on the play.

Newton also had a 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that gave Carolina its final lead and earned him a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty after he celebrated by playing the air guitar. But his most jaw-dropping attribute Sunday was his ability to handle the Cardinals' defensive pressure. Horton promised all week to bring the house and he did, blitzing from all angles to give Newton plenty to think about.

"He had incredible composure out there against all odds," Panthers tackle Jordan Gross said.

There are, of course, no guarantees that Newton will duplicate this performance again in his career. Former Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart threw for more than 400 yards his rookie season and we all know where he ended up. The Cardinals' defense also had a hand in Newton's success. The pressure often didn't reach him and the secondary was less than sharp.

"We had some miscommunication," said strong safety Adrian Wilson, who was the culprit on Smith's long TD grab.

But for a guy who's charged with reviving a 2-14 team -- for a guy who's every move is being scrutinized by the national media and NFL fan base -- Newton is showing no signs that the pressure is anything new to him.

"He's had the world on his shoulders for a year now," Gross said. "He's getting used to it.

All but one element, that is. The last time Newton lost a game was against Navarro Junior College in 2009 when he played for Blinn College in Brenham, Texas.

"It's not a comfortable feeling for me," he said.

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