With just over a week left until the return of America's biggest sport, the Carolina Panthers are bringing the mentality "playoffs or bust" into the upcoming season. Sure, they play in one of the tougher divisions in football due to the Saints and Falcons, but do you think that scares Cam Newton?
A former Heisman Trophy winner and national champion at Auburn, Newton carried his college swagger into the NFL and showcased zero fear in his rookie campaign. His list of accomplishments a season ago is simply unfair.
Making the Pro Bowl in his first year, the Panthers' leader became the only rookie quarterback to ever throw for at least 4,000 yards in a season. In addition, he rushed for a whopping 706 yards and obliterated defenses with his 6 foot 5, 245 pound frame.
Before the start of the 2011 NFL draft, scouts and general managers shared a "prominent" concern about Newton's game— his accuracy, or lack of it. In college, Auburn's offense was based around the zone-read option, which often resulted in Newton running the ball, thus making it appear that he was not pro-ready.
There was an important factor, however, that analysts and coaches studying last year's AP Offensive Rookie of the Year seemed to miss. Their view was one-sided and based on the following: As a result of Auburn running the ball with Newton on a regular basis, the wide receivers routinely faced single coverage and at times were so open that you or me could have completed a pass.
But just because Newton did not face his share of throwing challenges in college doesn't mean that it was fair to label him as being inaccurate. In fact, when the former Auburn star was expected to squeeze the ball into tight coverage, he did.
If you go back and watch the tape, it is clear that Newton brought the whole package with his ability to throw every pattern on the route-tree with precision and accuracy. Now those skills are transforming at the next level.
While he was always regarded as a first round talent during his college days, it is still immensely jaw-dropping to witness the Panthers' quarterback's success so early in the NFL. After watching tape of his first NFL start against the Arizona Cardinals, the Panthers have to be thinking that they have one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
He routinely put the ball on the money with zip and velocity even when a defender was in perfect position. On his first throw of the game, for instance, Newton had perfect touch as he thread the needle between two defenders and connected with Steve Smith on an out route.
Not only was he able to put the ball in a location where only his receiver could get it, but his ability throughout the game to stand tall in the pocket when there was pressure and deliver consistently was impressive. One play that stood out was on third down and 12 during Carolina's opening drive of the second half.
The Cardinals blitzed, but instead of getting nervous like so many young quarterbacks do, Newton waited for his receiver's route to develop and threw a bullet off of his back foot right before he was sacked. His teammate, Legedu Naane, caught it and made the first down, resulting in a crucial play to keep a drive alive that eventually led to a Panthers touchdown.
Critics will talk about his 17 interceptions, which is definitely something he needs to improve on, but this is not an area that needs to be over-analyzed. In 2009, for example, Peyton Manning won his fourth MVP despite tossing 16 pics. The following year, in 2010, Manning threw 17 more.
Of course, during both of these seasons, Manning also threw for at least 4,500 yards along with 33 touchdowns, while Newton only threw for 21. However, the key word in the previous sentence is "threw."
Last year, including rushing touchdowns, the former number one pic and Panthers' savior combined for 35 scores, which is more than Manning had both times. If that wasn't enough, Newton's 14 rushing touchdowns broke an NFL record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a single season; the previous record was 12 held by Steve Grogan in 1976.
When we think about what makes a quarterback special, being able to make great plays under duress is mandatory, but not just the pressure of a defensive end or linebacker. The best of the best have top-notch ability when the clock is the enemy.
It is hard to judge Newton on this based on one year alone, but at the same time he has already showed us glimpses of his capabilities in crunch time. Going back to their first game of 2011, the Panthers had one final drive left before the end of the half with the score tied at seven.
The ball was on their own 26 yard line and there was 1:03 left in the game. Most coaches with a young quarterback (and sometimes even a veteran) would have taken a knee and been content going into halftime even on the road.
Not when you have Mr. Newton, though. The first play called was a designed pass with three receivers and a tight end, but when no one got open Cam was able to allude pressure from the defense and take off with his feet for a first down.
A couple of plays later, Carolina was on Arizona's 26-yard line with 13 seconds left when the emerging star quarterback made a brilliant play with his arm and eyes. Shortly after the ball was snapped, Newton looked to his left and pump faked to Smith, creating just enough separation from the defender.
Although he knew the play was going as planned, the Panthers' signal-caller turned his body and eyes to the middle of the field in order to draw the safety's attention in the wrong direction. Then, Newton quickly turned back to the left and delivered a perfect ball to the streaking Smith who had his defender beat by less than half a step.
The Panthers would go in at halftime with a seven-point lead on the road. While they ended up losing the game due to horrific defense and special teams, Newton showed the football world that there is a new force to be reckoned with.
He finished the game 24-37 for a record-breaking 422 yards by a rookie on opening day (previously held by Peyton Manning). He also had three total touchdowns, two passing and one rushing, and an interception for a passer rating of 110.4.
This kind of talent is even rare in the NFL, which is why the Panthers are in great shape to make a playoff run for years to come.