The biggest surprise of Week 1 for me was the stellar play of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Yes, Newton was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft this past April, but only a handful of analysts and fans expected him to make an immediate impact as a starting quarterback. On Sunday, Newton silenced his critics by throwing for 422 yards with two touchdowns, a 65 percent completion rate and a rushing touchdown. The passing yardage the Auburn product racked up was the highest all-time in a rookie quarterback’s debut – hardly a result most experts anticipated seeing.
The book on Newton coming into the draft was that his athleticism, strength and delivery were exceptional, but his progressions, quarterback awareness and accuracy were going to make it nearly impossible for him to be “NFL-ready” right away. Last week, however, Newton’s accuracy and decision-making was superb – fitting bullets into tight windows, connecting on long balls to Steve Smith and completing smart check-downs to his tight ends.
It’s true that Cam Newton’s Week 1 performance should be taken with a grain or two of salt as the Panthers were playing a sub-par Cardinals team, but it remains a fact that Newton’s exhibition on Sunday was far more impressive than anyone could have possibly imagined.
I was sick of Cam Newton before he’d even taken an NFL snap. Between his Heisman season at Auburn, the NCAA investigation, the National Championship and the NFL Draft, Cam Newton has sucked up more SportsCenter airtime than anyone since Brett Favre called it quits for the twelfth time. That said, the kid looked real good yesterday against a dominant Cardinals defense. Yes, that was a joke and I know the Cardinals are awful, but 422 yards and three touchdown passes is still impressive even if you were putting it up against the Toronto Argonauts. Take the stats for what you will but what impressed me most about Newton was how poised and comfortable he looked. You know how freshmen have that look of, “Oh-my-gawd-college-what-do-I-do?” Well, Cam had that upperclassman, “Yeah-I-know-I-belong-here-get-at-me” look. Newton’s doubters are not in short supply but we know he believes in himself. Also, no one should forget he has Jon Gruden’s rare seal of approval. Maybe someone should pinch him and remind him that the Panthers are on a one-way train to 4-12, but heck, let him have his fun. Despite the Panthers losing, Cam’s career could not have gotten off to a much better start.
Baltimore’s lambasting of Pittsburgh during Week 1 was, in my opinion, the biggest surprise of the week. True, it was only a matter of time before Baltimore broke the streak and beat the Steelers, and true the game was at home, but no one could have seen this coming. The Steelers did not have too many changes on either side of the ball from their Super Bowl runner-up squad and the Ravens were coming in with an aging defense and an uninspiring pre-season from the much-maligned Joe Flacco. The Steelers weren’t looking ahead to anyone with some of the bombshells on their schedule coming up – namely the Titans, Seahawks and Colts – and had 11 days to prepare for a team they had dominated for the past two years.
To put this into perspective, the Steelers have not suffered a loss like this since a 37-7 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1…of 1997. The Steelers were not just beaten, but humiliated and embarrassed in front of a national audience. The Ravens put the Steelers in a proverbial half-nelson and then continued to throw them against a wall, executing a fake-PAT already up three touchdowns. The Ravens relegated the Steelers from Super Bowl favorite to Super Bowl hungover. It’s not all bad for the Steelers; in 1997, they recovered from their Week 1 disaster to advance to the AFC Championship game. I would not be surprised if they turned it around once again in 2011 and taught the AFC a lesson.