Cam Newton: Panthers' Top Pick Reminds Everyone He Lives for Big Stage

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 11, 2011

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 11:  Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers leads teammates out onto the field for warm ups to the NFL season opener game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There were a lot of people who thought the Carolina Panthers made a huge mistake when they drafted Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick back in April. And during the preseason, he did nothing to dispel the notion.

The lesson Newton taught us all today, however, is one that we've known for years now: The preseason doesn't mean anything.

In case you happened to miss it, Newton's regular season debut against the Arizona Cardinals was one of the books. The Panthers lost the game 28-21, but Newton himself was utterly magnificent.

Through the air, Newton went 24-of-37 for 422 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. On the ground, Newton rushed eight times for 18 yards and a touchdown.

To give you an idea just how significant these numbers are, NFL.com noted that Newton broke the rookie record for passing yards in Week 1. That record was previously held by Peyton Manning.

How unreal is that? Of all the things we could have expected Newton to do in his (true) NFL debut, I don't think any of us expected him to break any records held by Manning. Especially not after the kind of preseason Newton had.

Of course, Newton got a lot of help from Steve Smith. Newton hit him for a 77-yard touchdown in the first quarter and a 26-yard touchdown in the second quarter and would ultimately end up hooking up with Smith eight times for 178 yards.

But beyond looking Smith's way as much as possible, the natural question is what was different about Newton himself. After looking so terrible in the preseason, what changed?

Well, from what I could tell, Newton started being himself again. He looked very hesitant and indeed quite out of sorts during the preseason. He was much more concerned with not making mistakes than he was with making plays. But on Sunday, he went back to being the born playmaker that he was last year with Auburn.

This should not come as a surprise. Though Newton has his faults, I'm not sure if I can think of any other recent rookie quarterback who could feed off the moment quite like Newton can. All he needs is a little adrenaline and a big stage on which to perform, and he's off.

As you may or may not recall, this was a trend that we saw develop during the 2010 season. Newton wasn't really a big part of Gene Chizik's offense until Auburn took on South Carolina at the end of September. That was the game in which Newton burst onto the scene, and he carried the Tigers all the way to a BCS National Championship. Along the way, he picked up the Heisman Trophy.

If Sunday's performance taught us anything about Newton, it's that the skill and the desire to accomplish such lofty things are still very much there. The issue now will be whether or not Newton is capable of doing what he did today week in and week out.

We’ll see. But after seeing what I’ve seen, I don’t have nearly as many doubts about Newton as I did before today.

Whether we're talking college or the pros, the dude just plain loves to play football.

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