Cam Newton walked onto University of Phoenix stadium for the second time in the last twelve months. The last time he was there he put forth a statistically inferior game, but still managed to lead his Auburn Tigers to a national championship. On Sunday, wearing his Carolina Panthers uniform Cam Newton performed in a diametrically opposite game, one where he put up a gaudy stat line but couldn't lead his team to victory.
For fans of the Carolina Panthers the game against the Cardinals wasn't really about starting the season 1-0 or 0-1, but rather trying to determine what the future of the organization would be long term. There was a great deal of nervous anticipation as fans waited to see if the performance would be indicative more of Peyton Manning, or Ryan Leaf, and with a collective exhale it seems that the former will be true more than the latter.
On 9/6/98 Peyton Manning entered Pro Player stadium in Miami, and despite losing 24-15 he threw for 302 yards, while completing over 55% of his passes, on 9/11/11 Cam Newton entered Arizona and left throwing for 422 yards and completing 65% of his. By setting this NFL record for a rookie in his debut game Newton went a long way to silence his critics who questioned everything from his desire, to his smile during the pre-draft process. One of the first things Cam told us was that becoming great was going to be "More like collard greens than instant grits", but today Newton proved his biggest critic wrong, himself, as his play was scintillating out of the gate.
More after the jump
Unfortunately there's a dark lining to cloud nine as the Panthers lost leader Jon Beason due to injury, and it could possibly be for the season. Following a blown coverage in the third quarter Beason was pursuing former Carolina Panther TE Jeff King, while running full pace Beason fell to the ground in pain and it appears he could have damaged the same achilles he had work on a few weeks ago. While we're not 100% sure of Beason's condition it appears the Panthers may have to learn to live without their star middle linebacker, putting more pressure on Dan Connor.
We were led to believe that the Cardinals offense would be centered on getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald. It was rumored Kevin Kolb was asked to target Fitzgerald between 12-15 times each game, and with reason, he's one of the best WRs in the NFL. However, on Sunday he met his match from an unlikely source as Chris Gamble covered Fitzgerald as well as anyone we've seen. He held the receiver to just three receptions and 62 yards, which is exactly what needed to be done. Teams can't really stop Fitzgerald, but you have to hope to contain him and in the end Gamble did a brilliant job.
Before we get to the player breakdowns I would be remiss if I didn't mention the offensive pulse of this team in Steve Smith. Last year was one of Smith's worst as a Carolina Panther from numerous angles, but today he was simply brilliant. Finishing the game with 8 receptions for 178 yards and 2 TDs, Smith turned back the clock on his career and gave us a taste of the triple crown winner we saw years ago. Moreover, the Cam-Smitty connection was in full force as the rookie and veteran looked like they'd been playing together for 6 years, not 6 weeks.
Cam Newton- Extremely Optimsitic There really aren't words to describe what Cam Newton's performance means to the Carolina Panthers as a team, and as a fan base. Perhaps the term 'we needed this' is overused, but we needed this. My favorite part of Cam's entire game? After the final whistle blew he was visibly upset on the sideline, not happy with spending the afternoon shredding an NFL defense he wanted a win. While he may have coined himself an 'icon and entertainer' people better add 'competitor' to that moniker.
Steve Smith- Extremely Optimistic I wont pretend to understand what finally motivated Steve Smith to stay in Carolina despite reports claiming he wanted to leave, but what we do know is that we've seen a seachange from Smitty, and Cam Newton rejuvenated the rules and regulations today. Nothing helps this team more than a relaxed and motivated Steve Smith, it was great to see.
Chris Gamble- Extremely Optimistic As I said before, Gamble managed to contain Fitzgerald and that's all you can hope to do. While he got a significant amount of help from the safety, ultimately he held his own and did exactly what he needed to.
Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson- Extremely Optimistic Any concern that the Panthers couldn't generate any pass rush was eliminated quickly as Hardy and Johnson combined for 8 tackles, 2 sacks and a FF. When Carolina are able to get some reliable pressure up the middle the result will be scary.
Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey- Extremely Optimistic Having pass catching TEs is a dream come true, and today showed just how vital they can be for a young QB. The two TEs combined for 7 receptions and 129 yards, while providing much needed safety valves for Cam.
Thomas Davis- Extremely Optimistic A continuation of his excellent pre-season play, Thomas Davis was flying around the field making plays. With Jon Beason likely out for a long amount of time the Panthers will need Davis to become their defensive leader quickly.
Defensive Tackles- Somewhat Optimistic The Panthers made a welcome change in the second half as they began to rotate Andre Neblett in for Terrell McClain on 1st and 2nd down. When this happened the complexion of the DL changed for the better. There's no doubt we still need a talent upgrade at the position, but this group fared much better when adjustments were made.
Brandon LaFell- Somewhat Optimistic We're still waiting for the lightbulb to turn on permanently, but on the whole LaFell proved he earned the #2 receiver spot across from Steve Smith.
Jordan Pugh- Extremely Pessimistic We heard a great deal about how high the coaches were on Jordan Pugh, but today as the nickel back he was terrible. Pugh was consistently losing his man and being burnt for large chunks of yardage. It will be welcome to have Darius Butler relieve him of this role.
DeAngelo Williams- Extremely Pessimistic Sometimes great players have terrible games, and this is exactly what happened with D-Will today. DeAngelo didn't make his cuts as quickly as we're accustomed to and he just never managed to get started as he finished with 12 attempts for just 30 yards.
Jordan Senn- Extremely Pessimistic No need to relive the play, we know why he's down here.
This was a game with far more good than bad in terms of the future of the Carolina Panthers. We saw Cam Newton dominate a NFL defense, we saw him pair well with Steve Smith and we saw a player who looked like a seasoned veteran. Losing Jon Beason was a terrible loss, but hopefully he'll be back to 100% soon.
Next week will likely be the biggest test Newton will face this year; he hasn't seen a pass rusher as talented as Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji should collapse the pocket quickly. Should Newton succeed again, however, then we can start to get truly excited we have the next 'great one'.