First Posted: 9/13/2011
Somewhere, Auburn’s Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn are smiling.
Labeled as a system quarterback by many NFL scouts, a risky selection by some general managers and a “one-year wonder” by draft guru Mel Kiper, Carolina’s Cam Newton juked the critics Sunday for a record-setting professional debut in Arizona.
The Heisman Trophy winner became the first rookie quarterback to pass for more than 400 yards in his first start, finishing 24-of-37 for 422 yards and three total touchdowns during Carolina’s 28-21 loss.
The Panthers may have came up a yard short against the Cardinals, but Newton sent rays of hope through a fan base that hasn’t had much to cheer since a home playoff loss to Arizona effectively squashed the 2008 season.
Newton made throw after throw from the pocket in Rob Chudzinski’s first game as Carolina’s play-caller, displaying poise with touch in his first real action against an often-blitzing NFL defense. On the same field Newton won the national championship eight months ago, the Panthers’ top pick completed eight straight passes at one point in the second half and didn’t throw consecutive incompletions until Carolina’s final drive.
The flair that defined Newton’s Auburn brilliance came in the third quarter when the 6-foot-6, 245-pounder leaped over his offensive line into the end zone on a quarterback draw. Newton was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty following his air guitar celebration after his first career rushing touchdown.
First-year head coach Ron Rivera let the penalty slide when Newton trotted back to the sideline.
Why mess with vintage Cam, an athletic quarterback who brings a certain swagger back to the Panthers?
Newton hooked up with veteran wideout Steve Smith for a pair of first-half touchdowns, the first being on a well-placed 77-yard strike down the left sideline. In all, Newton’s favorite target finished with eight receptions for 178 yards and two touchdowns, his highest yardage total since a win at Baltimore in 2006.
The Panthers’ passing attack revealed plenty of weapons at Newton’s disposal this season, notably dual tight end acquisitions Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen. After halftime, Shockey and Olsen became reliable options for first downs and Newton found the pair open more often than not.
Newton’s much-anticipated debut came with drama.
With the Panthers trailing by seven at the 2:26 mark of the fourth quarter following Patrick Peterson’s 89-yard punt return touchdown, Newton calmly directed the two-minute offense on an 8-play, 76-yard drive inside the Arizona 10.
During the drive, Newton rifled a pass up the right sideline before the 2-minute warning to Brandon Lafell for a 27-yard gain and later hit Smith for a leaping 23-yard pick up between two linebackers.
If Mike Goodson would have reached the 1-yard line on 4th-and-5, Carolina’s new star could have capped off his exciting debut with a win in overtime. Instead, the result ended in Newton’s first loss since he played under center at Blinn Junior College in 2009.
Newton wasn’t satisfied with the result, but the millions of fans that tuned in and saw his highlights on opening Sunday took note.
“I’m glad he’s with us,” Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said.
Staff writer Brad Crawford can be reached at (910) 272-6119 or [email protected]