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25 Seasons of Panthers Football: Cam Newton era begins in 2011


It's quite possible that quarterback Cam Newton earned the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award during the first two weeks of the season. When you become the first player in NFL history to throw for more than 400 yards in each of the first two games of your career, it can have that kind of effect.

Of course, Newton did not stop there in his rookie campaign. He was dazzling with his arm, finishing the year with a then NFL rookie-record 4,051 passing yards as well as 21 passing touchdowns - the third most by a rookie in NFL history at the time.

Newton also was spectacular with his feet, rushing for 706 yards on 126 attempts - a team-record average of 5.6 yards every time he took off with the football. Furthermore, Newton's 14 rushing touchdowns set an NFL record. No quarterback in league history - rookie or otherwise - had ever run for as many touchdowns in a single season.

About the only one who didn't seem all that surprised by Newton's remarkable rookie season was, well, Newton himself.

"I don't think anyone's expectations of me will ever be as high as mine," Newton said. "I'm not surprised by anything I do. The only time I'm surprised is when I don't play to my potential."

As the No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, expectations were high for Newton - whether it was the player himself setting them or others, like Panthers management, which had declared him the best player in the draft.

But no one really expected him to come out of the gate like he did those first two games.

Carolina's season opener was at the Arizona Cardinals, on the same field where Newton had completed his college career months earlier by leading Auburn to the national championship. But the Heisman Trophy winner had suffered through a somewhat uneven preseason, and it was generally expected that he would experience some of the growing pains many quarterbacks do upon entering the professional ranks.

Instead, Newton completed 24-of-37 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns. It was the first 400-yard passing game for a rookie quarterback in NFL history and the most yards a rookie had thrown for in his debut since Otto Graham's 346 yards for the Cleveland Browns in 1950 - nearly four decades before Newton was born.

The end result, though, was a 28-21 loss that did not sit well with Newton.

"The last time I lost a game was at Navarro Junior College," he told reporters afterward. "What do you want me to say, 'It feels great?' It is not a comfortable feeling for me."

Newton did look comfortable on the field, however, and veteran wide receiver Steve Smith was among the many who took notice.

"He was everything everybody didn't expect him to be," said Smith after catching eight of Newton's passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. "He was on point, he made some great runs, he made some great reads, made some fantastic throws. He made some throws out there that honestly as a receiver it made it easy to catch them."

A week later, Newton proved it was no fluke by throwing for 432 yards in a 30-23 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.

Afterward, Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji raved about Newton.

"I knew he would be good," Raji said. "But if I told you I knew he'd be this good this early, I'd be lying to you. He doesn't get frustrated. We threw a lot of stuff at him, and he was able to sit back there and make some of the plays they needed."

View photos from Cam Newton's rookie year and head coach Ron Rivera's first season in 2011.

As the season progressed, Newton's strong play produced wins. The Panthers won four of their last six games, including a 38-19 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which Newton scored three touchdowns to set the NFL record for the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season.

"It does mean something to me. I'm not going to say it doesn't," Newton said of setting the record. "But I'm not focusing on individualism in this game. It's still 11-on-11. I don't think I could have done anything without those 10 other guys on offense - most importantly, the five guys (on the offensive line) blocking their tails off each and every snap."

When he was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year one month later, no one was surprised.

"I don't think any of us knew quite what we had until, really, the Arizona game," said Mike Shula, then Carolina's quarterbacks coach. "He's really progressed. Probably the biggest surprise is how well he sees the field. … I think the sky is the limit for him."

Head coach Ron Rivera added: "He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be great. Win or lose, it's always about what else he could have done to help the team. It's kind of that window-versus-mirror thing: In a win, he looks out and sees who else is doing a great job; when we lose, he looks in the mirror."

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