“All those young guys could have gotten great development,” Rivera said. “Especially in our situation, with a rookie quarterback.”
What would Cam Newton have done with a normal off-season? We won’t know until next year, but for now, Newton, the rookie quarterback from Auburn who was supposed to need time to transition from the spread offense he ran in college to a more N.F.L.-friendly pocket game, has stunned the league with a record-setting first two weeks.
On Sunday, Newton passed for a single-game rookie record of 432 yards against Green Bay, a blitz-heavy team. That was 10 more yards than he passed for last week in his pro debut, and he is the first N.F.L. player to begin his career with consecutive 400-yard passing games. Yes, there were four sacks and three interceptions Sunday, and two losses over all. But Newton has surpassed any reasonable expectations.
Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys executive who analyzes college players and the draft for , started monitoring Newton intensively last fall and was impressed by his talent and leadership skills. But even Brandt is shocked that Newton has thrown for so many yards so fast.
“Am I surprised he threw for 400 yards both games? Yes,” Brandt said. “Am I surprised he’s doing well? No. I had no question in my mind he’s going to do well.”
The Panthers are a rebuilding team with few receiving threats, but they did acquire tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen in the off-season to provide Newton with reliable targets. Still, the questions about Newton revolved around whether he, like Tim Tebow in Denver, would struggle to adapt to a pro-style game. The two, though, are significantly different. Newton is the far superior athletic talent, and he is not laden with an unorthodox throwing motion, as Tebow is. Newton throws a better pass that reaches its intended target more quickly than Tebow does, and Newton recognizes defenses more readily. The result: while Tebow took snaps as a backup wide receiver to get playing time for the Broncos last week, Newton is single-handedly keeping the Panthers competitive.
“The ball explodes off his hands, and he can change speeds,” the ESPN analyst and former quarterback Trent Dilfer said of Newton. “Tebow can’t do that. It’s night and day between the two players.”
During the summer, Rivera lauded Newton’s work habits. “You meet him and all the different things you can do with him — the book time, the film time, the walk-through time, the practice and postpractice — the kid has been terrific and very open to teaching,” he said. While the N.F.L. was at a standstill during the lockout, Newton trained at the IMG Academy with the former N.F.L. quarterback Chris Weinke. Weinke is a former Carolina quarterback, too, and his relationship with the franchise undoubtedly allowed him to gain insight into the type of offense the Panthers planned to run this year.
Newton was able to get the Carolina playbook during the brief window when the lockout ended around the time of the draft. That allowed him to get a head start with Weinke. Dilfer is familiar with it, too, because he knows Norv Turner’s playbook and Turner schooled Carolina’s offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski. Dilfer said it was a well-designed playbook that allowed a quarterback, even a new one, to develop pictures in his head of the plays and to be able to call the plays in a short period of time. So even though there were no off-season workouts, when Newton finally got to training camp, he was able to call the plays right away.
As for Newton’s flaws, Dilfer said Newton would most likely always miss high, because in his initial training as a thrower in college he tilted his body at angles to throw, so that his left shoulder still tilts upward, and then he has to get everything level to get the ball in a straight plane. Dilfer said his technique had improved drastically, but that would most likely always be something he had to correct.
As for developing Newton, Dilfer said the Panthers were taking the correct approach, even as they struggle to win games in a rebuilding year.