In Week 1 of the 2011 season in Glendale, Ariz., the story almost told itself.
Ron Rivera was going to get a win in his first game as an NFL coach, and Cam Newton was going to lead a late fourth-quarter comeback to capture a victory in his NFL debut at the same stadium where he ended his Auburn career with a national title.
That story would have been too tidy, though, and ultimately the Panthers lost the game 28-21, on a fourth-down pass that came up a yard short. But the thought of returning to the site of his NFL head-coaching debut ginned up some unexpected feelings for Rivera on Wednesday.
“Now that you brought it up, yeah. Seriously. I guess now that I think about it, it is,” Rivera said when asked if the University of Phoenix Stadium has a special place in his heart. “More than anything else, it’s about winning. You most certainly do want to go back and win. I didn’t think about that. But yeah, I guess so. It’ll be interesting to see how we react to it.”
For Newton, University of Phoenix Stadium, in which he has gone a combined 44-for-71 for 687 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions against the Oregon Ducks and Arizona Cardinals, is nothing special.
“I don’t look at it like that,” said Newton, who led Auburn to a 22-19 win against Oregon in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. “If that were the case, every stadium has something influential in my life since I’m playing in the NFL. I can’t go about it like that. I got to make this stadium something that, at the end of the day Sunday, I leave it being 2-2. That’s about as symbolic as it gets.”
Newton’s 422-passing-yard performance against the Cardinals in his NFL debut shattered the rookie record held by Peyton Manning and made Newton the early front-runner for Offensive Player of the Year, an award he would go on to win at the end of the season.
Rivera and backup quarterback Derek Anderson both said Wednesday they expected big things from Newton, but they did not expect him to put up 422 yards.
“I think everybody was kind of speculating what kind of player Cam would be in the pros, and you didn’t really get to see a whole lot in the preseason,” center Ryan Kalil said. “You see some of it, but until it’s live you don’t get a sense of that. I just remember thinking everybody was waiting to see and then he put up all those yards, not just running but sitting in the pocket and throwing. It’s really exciting, and it’s one of the reasons we still have a lot of faith in him and what he can do. Watching him grow as a quarterback has been fun to watch.”
Some of that growth has involved self-scouting, which Newton did plenty during the bye week. He met with Anderson, offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey to review film from the Panthers’ 1-2 start, to see what he can work on.
He said his consistency, ball location and completion percentage on deep passes could all be better.
Newton ranks 11th in quarterback rating with a 91.9 mark. His 59.1 completion percentage is 20th in the league, and his 192 passing yards per game are 30th. But he’s coming off a Week 3 performance against the Giants that was his best of the season. Newton went 15 for 27 for 288 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He also had 45 yards rushing and a touchdown.
Rivera said he liked the offensive game plan Shula put in place in the 38-0 win, and he looks forward to seeing Newton play like he did against the Giants – and two years ago against the Cardinals – more consistently.
“It’s like every week, you expect something great from him,” Rivera said. “He’s got that ability, he’s learning, growing. He’s taking some big steps. I liked what I saw last week.
“He’s still morphing into the player you hope he can be. I’m still excited about it, and I have a lot of confidence in him.”
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