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Spotlight Game: Panthers vs Cardinals, Vol. 1.1

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ll select one game each week to record and review on Tuesday evening after watching six reruns of The Office. I chose the Panthers and Cardinals this week because I wanted a first look at Cam Newton and Kevin Kolb in their new homes. Here’s what I learned.

Let’s start with Cam Newton. Heading into the 2011 season, many were skeptical about Newton’s future as an NFL quarterback. After passing for an NFL rookie record 422 yards in his debut, the skeptics have quieted down and the bandwagon is quickly running out of space.

Right from the start Newton appeared cool and relaxed, like it was his 200th start, not his first. He didn’t look scared. He didn’t look hesitant. He didn’t look overwhelmed. In fact, he looked hungry – as if he were passed over until the 3rd round and not the first overall pick. When pressure from the Arizona defense closed in around him, Newton hung in the pocket as long as possible, never panicking, and more importantly, never committing a “what the heck is he doing” rookie mistake. At one point, the Cardinals even had their entire defensive line in a two-point stance to fluster and confuse Newton. He didn’t flinch, connecting with Steve Smith on a 77 yard touchdown bomb.

What I like most about Newton is the way he moves in the pocket. To help explain my point, let’s compare him with Michael Vick’s early years. Until his last year or two in Atlanta, Vick would mostly avoid pressure by tucking the ball and taking off. Newton, on the other hand, danced within the pocket like a boxer. When necessary, he scrambled, but he continued looking downfield. Most young quarterbacks tuck and run as soon as they feel some heat. Only when he had no other option did Newton take off. For a rookie, especially one of Newton’s athletic ability, that is impressive.

Ok, bear with me on this one. What is one of the many reasons we think Peyton Manning is so great? Answer: The way he finishes halves. Cam Newton is not Peyton Manning, and probably never will be. Regardless, Newton’s production on the final drive of each half was impressive. It took 57 seconds for Newton to lead Carolina to a touchdown just before halftime. Sure, he had an interception called back due to a questionable roughing the passer penalty. But sometimes, being lucky is being good. Besides, two plays after the penalty, Newton lobbed a beautiful ball directly into Steve Smith’s waiting hands for a 26 yard touchdown. (It just so happens that that throw was the same throw Mark Sanchez would continually miss a few hours later.)

Fast forward to the end of the 4th quarter. The Panthers are down seven with the ball on their own 17 and 2:20 remaining. Newton finds Greg Olsen for 10 yards with 2:15 left. As an Eagle fan, here’s where Donovan McNabb would look around like he was grocery shopping, wondering what to do next. Not Newton. He rushed to the line, barked out instructions, and snapped the ball just before the two minute warning. (Remember, this is an NFL rookie starting on just five weeks of preparation.) Long story short, Newton completes two more passes and moves Carolina to the Arizona 11 in only 41 seconds. Obviously, the Panthers don’t score and lose 21-28. More on those final four plays later.

While Newton’s debut was exceptional, he did have his struggles. He failed to read the linebackers at times, even throwing two interceptions to Daryl Washington, although one was called back. While the blitz didn’t faze him all that much, I did count two occasions where he looked frazzled by the excessive pressure. Still, not bad for your first NFL start. Also, I was surprised how slow Newton looked. At no point did I see him outrun an attacking lineman or even linebacker. I always assumed he was cut from the Michael Vick mold. All in all, though, it was a stellar performance. It’s only one game, but Carolina must feel good about their future with Newton at the helm.

Ok. Kevin Kolb’s turn. While Kolb also played well, he wasn’t quite as impressive. After leading Arizona to a touchdown on their opening drive, Kolb came out and threw a pick-six (that was dropped) and fumbled (miraculously recovered by AZ) on consecutive plays. He also had some difficulty getting Larry Fitzgerald involved in the offense. Fitzgerald didn’t make his first catch until 2:07 remaining in the first half. (The impressive completion made FOX’s Chad Pennington blush. He even compared Kolb to Kurt Warner. Slow down, Chad. Slow down.) Also, unlike Newton, Kolb struggled to move within the pocket. As soon as there was pressure, Kolb evacuated, often leaving himself in poor position to make an accurate throw. Obviously, it’s normal to flee pressure, but the NFL’s best quarterbacks escape pressure while maintaining a reasonable opportunity to complete a pass downfield. Kolb’s scrambles were often chaotic and backward (literally).

On the positive side, Kolb moved Arizona’s offense up and down the field throughout the first half. If it weren’t for two empty red zone trips (a lazy Beanie Wells fumble and a missed field goal), Kolb and the Cardinals would have entered halftime with a lead instead of trailing by seven. Overall, I was pleased with Kolb’s performance. While he and Fitzgerald didn’t click, he found his other receivers and directed the offense with confidence and poise. Unlike others, I believe Kolb is a legitimate franchise quarterback.

Back to Carolina. I need an explanation for the Panthers’ last four play calls. With Carolina down seven and at the Arizona 11. Here were the calls:

1st down: Wheel/fade route to Mike Woodson.
2nd down: Incomplete pass over the middle to Legedu Naanee.
3rd down: Fade to left corner to Naanee.
4th down: Incomplete pass to right corner to Greg Olsen. Offside penalty gives Carolina another chance.
4th down take two: Slant across middle to Mike Woodson, falling a yard and a half short. Game over.

As I mentioned on Monday, I don’t like the fade calls in that situation. I have a more significant complaint, though. Why on earth wasn’t a single play run for Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, or Jonathan Stewart… better known as your three best offensive players? I was dumbfounded. In an extreme exaggeration, this would be like the Phillies reaching the World Series and starting Roy Oswalt, Vance Worley, and Kyle Kendrick instead of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. When it’s crunch time, get the ball to your best players. You may still lose, but at least you know you fired all your bullets.

Other Insight:
  • While the Cardinals scored 7 points in the first half and 21 in the second, the Arizona offense was actually better in the first half. All three scores in the second half came as the result of big plays and Carolina mistakes. The 48 yard TD to Jeff King was the result of a broken coverage and Jon Beason’s achilles injury. The 70 yard TD to Early Doucet was the product of a horribly missed tackle. And it was the Patrick Patterson punt return that put Arizona ahead for good. Clearly, the Cardinal offense didn’t disappear. However, the unit was more consistent and in a better rhythm in the first half.
  • Carolina’s defense didn’t play as poorly as the final score reflects. I was actually impressed with their performance. They do have issues up the middle, however, especially with Beason done for the year.
  • Speaking of up the middle, Beanie Wells had a field day thrashing the middle of the Panther defense.
  • As for Beason’s injury, what a bummer. He’s fun to watch. It’s never good news when an untouched player collapses mid-sprint in the open field.
  • Charles Johnson is really good.
  • With 6:30 to go in the 3rd, Cam Newton’s stat line read; 13/19 288 yards, 2TD, INT. 288 yards on 13 completions? Carolina clearly isn’t babying the rookie. They’re asking him to make plays and move the offense, not manage it.
  • Hopefully, Newton continues this level of play so we’re treated to another outstanding season from the always intense, yet loveable, Steve Smith.
  • The Arizona secondary is in for a long season. Patrick Patterson is probably their best cover man and he got an education from Steve Smith on Sunday.
  • Cardinal fans wore corn on the cob foam hats that read “Kevin” on the side. Get it? Funny.
  • Is 2011 the year Beanie Wells finally makes an impact? He looked significantly quicker on Sunday than he had the previous two seasons. The red zone fumble was the only blemish on an impressive afternoon.
  • I’m not sure what happened to Carolina’s running game, but it was nonexistent on Sunday. DeAngelo Williams’ longest run was eight yards. I’m quite certain none of his other 11 attempts were longer than three. Jonathan Stewart had a little more success with runs of 10 and 13 yards. Unfortunately, his longest run of 29 yards was negated by a holding penalty. Carolina needs to get that ground game going before Newton gets tattooed a-la Michael Vick. And don’t forget, Carolina owner, Jerry Richardson doesn’t want tattoos anywhere near Cam Newton.

One Comment

  1. Derek

    Nice work Jaws. Seriously, you could probably take his job as chief QB scout. Even though the Panthers lost, the QB play in general was a pleasure to watch. Each guy managed well, put up stats, and didn’t blow it (see Romo, Tony).
    Also good note of the Panthers defense. It wasn’t as awful as the final score showed. Charles Johnson is good (thank goodness since the money he got was a lot) and Thomas Davis looks like he is back after two ACL tears. However, with their weakness up the middle they have to limit the big plays (which they failed miserably) and take advantage of mistakes (as you mentioned the failed pick 6 and fumble recovery). Because the reality was the Cardinals offense did not really hold any long, sustained drives as much as capitalizing on Carolina mistakes, which goes far in helping a team win.

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