Cam Newton makes it look that easy
The Panthers' QB was better than advertised, passing for 422 yards in his rookie debut
Cam Newton can, and did. He wore his 2011 draft status on his jersey (No. 1), but didn't play like a rookie making his first-ever NFL regular-season start. He played like he's been in the league for years, not months.
The Arizona Cardinals threw everything at him except Camelback Mountain. They blitzed him up the middle, from the edges, and I'm pretty sure from the upper deck of University of Phoenix Stadium. They tried to intimidate him and knock him into neighboring New Mexico.
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His Carolina Panthers lost 28-21, but it wasn't the usual, mind-numbing kind of defeat that characterized last season's two-win team. That's because last season's team didn't have Newton.
Afterward, Newton, wearing dress socks, a T-shirt and shorts, sat in a folding chair in front of his locker and stared straight ahead. He hadn't lost a game since Oct. 31, 2009, when his Blinn College team lost to Navarro College. Since then, nothing but W's -- until Sunday.
He sat in that chair, elbows on knees, as the rest of the Panthers dressed and made their way to the team's charter bus. Told that Newton seemed to be taking the loss hard, tight end Greg Olsen said, "I don't know why. He was a big reason why we had a chance.''
Minutes later, Olsen walked over to Newton and offered some encouraging words. Not that it mattered much. Newton isn't used to being on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
"What you want me to say: It feels great?'' Newton said to reporters later. "It's not a comfortable feeling for me.''
Nobody is going to confuse the Cardinals' defense with the Baltimore Ravens', but what Newton did -- NFL debut ... on the road ... thinner playbook ... pressure of being the No. 1 overall pick. Blah, blah, blah -- was in the zip code of extraordinary.
"He was everything that everybody didn't expect him to be,'' said Carolina's veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, who caught eight of Newton's passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns.
I'll admit it: I didn't expect him to throw for more than 400 yards. Or 300 yards. Or maybe 200 yards. And I guarantee you the Cardinals didn't, either.
At least, most of them didn't.
"I played against Newton last year,'' said Cardinals rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson, whose 89-yard TD punt return midway through the fourth quarter turned out to be the game-winner. "I told you guys from the beginning that he is a great athlete and is definitely going to be one of the greats in this league.''
Newton threw for more than three times as many yards (136) as he did against Mississippi State last September. He threw for 157 more yards than he did during Auburn's BCS Championship win against Oregon in this same stadium nine months ago.
To put a nice stats ribbon on the day, think of those 422 yards this way: Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton, Bart Starr -- some of the absolute greats of the game -- have never thrown for as many yards as Newton did Sunday.
He made it look spectacularly simple, which, of course, it isn't. The NFL is littered with rookie debuts in which quarterbacks needed Depends.
But Newton, working with a simplified Panthers playbook (for now), picked apart the Cardinals' secondary and recorded the highest yardage total by an NFL quarterback in his first game. And he did it with seemingly half of the Arizona roster blitzing him.
"I would have done the same thing [Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton] did, I'll tell you that right now,'' Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said.
"They brought the house the whole time,'' Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "He managed it well. Those are things for veteran quarterbacks to overcome.''
Newton took two shots that resulted in roughing-the-passer penalties. Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett took a little extra time removing himself from Newton after a tackle. Newton tried to slap him away.
"He's had the world on his shoulders for a year now and I think he's getting used to it,'' Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "This is a tough game. He got hit a lot. Crowd noise, but he had incredible composure out there against all odds. He was as advertised.''
There were mistakes. His tried to squeeze a pass through double coverage to Smith, but it was intercepted by linebacker Daryl Washington. One play later, Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, who was making his Arizona debut after an offseason trade, lobbed a 48-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Jeff King to tie the score, 14-14, in the third quarter.
On the Panthers' final drive, Newton completed 60 yards' worth of passes and had Carolina on the Cardinals' 11 with 1 minute, 30 seconds remaining to play. A touchdown would have tied the game.
Instead, he threw three consecutive incompletions and his fourth pass, an underneath route to running back Mike Goodson, was a yard short of a first down.
"A lot of bad throws on my part at the end,'' Newton said.
He was hard on himself. Too hard.
"Cam is very disappointed,'' Smith said. "I'm encouraged by that.''
And so he was also encouraged by Newton's play and potential, right? Smith scoffed at the suggestion.
"So 'encouraged' is selling him short,'' Smith said. "And I'm not going to sell him short.''
Nobody is going to do that. Not after Sunday's performance.
Newton didn't do what he wanted, which was make possible a Panthers' comeback. But he did something almost as important.
He made believers.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.