In his first preseason game as an NFL player, Cam Newton's very first pass was a seam route. Pros will tell you that's the most important throw a quarterback can make. It's when a receiver runs up field with a linebacker running underneath him and a bloodthirsty safety closing in on him, just dying to get a kill shot. It's not quite cutting a diamond, but the throw calls for a steady hand. And on this particular seam route, the safety never had a chance to break on the ball. Newton nailed it.
I was impressed. Most people weren't. "It's just preseason," they said.
In his first real game, Newton did pretty well. He threw for 400 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But hey, it was against the Arizona Cardinals.
Okay, fair enough.
In Week 2, Newton threw for more than 400 yards against the Green Bay Packers, who, as the defending world champions, are considered the best football team in the world.
In that game, Newton made some mistakes. This is to be expected. I mean, this is expected of anyone who plays in the league, especially the quarterback position. But it was how he made those mistakes that most impressed me. See, Newton's interceptions didn't come as a result of him being a rookie and not knowing what to do. No, two of his picks were the result of him being greedy.
For instance, on one play the Panthers ran a two-level pattern. Both receiver Brandon Lafell and tight end Jeremy Shockey ran corner routes toward the sideline. Lafell ran his at twenty yards, and Shockey at ten yards. Shockey was open and could have been reached with an easy throw. But Newton went for the bigger prize, even though LaFell was bracketed by two defenders. Newton, in the spirit of Brett Favre, simply believed that despite the odds and despite the coverage, that he could fit the ball into a porthole-sized window. He was wrong.
But that didn't stop him because he did it again a few minutes later.
Normally I hear how great the numbers are. That's what it's all about these days, right? I was expecting to hear all the fantasy enthusiasts proclaiming him the Second Coming. I was expecting the chorus to go something like this: "I'm not a Panthers fan, but Cam Newton is putting up crazy stats!"
I heard some of that, but what I mostly read from all the sites is a grumbling from fans saying that until he won a game the young man hadn’t accomplished anything. That's fine, but why not take a moment to acknowledge that against the Green Bay Packers, Newton had proven one thing. He had proven he belongs in the National Football League. And he certainly did it more quickly than, say, Troy Aikman, who was 0-11 in his rookie season with nine touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
So why does it seem that both fans and analysts -- some of them in really angry fashion -- are reluctant to acknowledge this?
Terry Bradshaw most clearly reflects the current anti-Newton sentiment. Bradshaw made his feeling clear before Newton ever took a snap. Bradshaw said simply, "I never liked him. I didn't like him college." He also added that Newton was behind where Michael Vick was coming out of college. I find that an odd statement. Bradshaw could have said Newton was behind where Ben Roethlisberger was coming out of school. In terms of his physicality and overall skill set, Newton is much more similar to Roethlisberger than he is to Vick.
Bradshaw went on to say he preferred some other rookie quarterbacks.
"I actually like Jake Locker down in Tennessee," Bradshaw said. "Christian Ponder in Minnesota and Blaine Gabbert down in Jacksonville. These young kids, as far as I'm concerned, are far ahead of Newton as far as being an NFL quarterback."
But Bradshaw's most acute criticism is of the technical nature. And he has a point. Newton is far from fundamentally sound. He doesn't step into his throws. Sometimes he stands on his back foot and simply flicks the ball. (Oddly, that flick of the wrist describes how Terry Bradshaw used to throw the deep ball, which may or may not have significance here) Nonetheless, for Newton, this mechanical flaw leads to wildly errant throws past wide open receivers.
But I'm pretty sure this reluctance to give Newton his due is greatly influenced by the way the young man carries himself. He still has the air of the big man on campus. He nonchalantly chomps gum in between plays. And regardless of the circumstance, it seems that panic is not part of his genetic material.
There's also the matter of those pesky sound bites. Yesterday, the Panthers got the ball with 6:44 left. They were trailing the Jaguars 10-8. And as he got under center, Newton's words from early in the week hung over the stadium like an added cloud cover. Newton told reporters that "Tom Brady is good, but he plays in the same league that I do."
Surely Cam Newton knows that invoking football royalty -- unless it's followed by an immediate and prolonged genuflection -- is grounds for a public beheading. After all, part of the game -- for any of us, really -- is saying all the right things. Forced humility is essential when attempting to sell oneself in a hater's market. Sure, some folks are gonna despise you just the same, but at least you're making an effort to be ... likable. Newton seems to have little use for this. He seems more concerned with playing quarterback.
So on first down, Newton hit Jonathan Stewart for 18 yards. Then he hit Steve Smith for another 13. Then three plays later, Newton hit tight end Olsen for the touchdown and again for the two-point conversion.
It was his first NFL win. It came against Gabbert, who Bradshaw likes better. You don't have to be Nostradamus to predict the angry postscript: "So what? He beat the Jaguars and the Jaguars are terrible."
Maybe they're right.
But at this rate, it's going to be a long time before they're proven so.
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