CHARLOTTE - Not that long ago, it wasn't yet clear that Cam Newton would be the Panthers' starting quarterback.
Now, it's difficult to envision anyone other than Newton in that role.
Roughly four years ago, a few months after Carolina made Newton the first No. 1 overall draft pick in franchise history, he and 2010 starter Jimmy Clausen found themselves in close competition at training camp for the starting role.
The Panthers ultimately decided to begin the regular season with Newton under center, but based on how much of a rookie he had looked like in the preseason, no one really knew what to expect when Carolina opened at Arizona.
What followed was a performance for the ages, a dazzling debut that immediately erased all doubts about who would be the team's starting quarterback as long as Newton remained with the Panthers.
Tuesday, Newton and the Panthers extended that stay significantly with the two sides executing a five-year contract extension through the 2020 season.
That game against the Cardinals truly was only the beginning for Newton, but what a beginning it was. He threw for 422 yards – the most ever in an NFL debut and tied for the most ever by an NFL rookie – and he went airborne for a 1-yard touchdown run to go with two touchdown passes.
Take a look at the career of quarterback Cam Newton in photos.
Newton's debut marked the start of my second season at Panthers.com. My first season in 2010 began with a 31-18 loss to the New York Giants – a point total that Carolina wouldn't again achieve until Week 7. So I, like most others, was beside myself with excitement over what I saw from Newton that day.
One person who was anything but excited? Newton.
"It's not a comfortable feeling for me," Newton said following the 28-21 loss. "We've just got to go back and get better."
Newton has gotten better as a player, and he's gotten better about dealing with losses. But many of the attributes that were on display in his Panthers debut are as true today as they were on that Sunday, and they're among the reasons why Carolina signed him to a historic extension.
HE'S A WINNER: That loss in Arizona marked Newton's first loss in a game that counted in nearly two calendar years (and he wasn't in a good mood after losing in the preseason, either). He won a national title at Blinn Junior College the year before doing the same at Auburn.
The Panthers improved by four victories Newton's rookie season, finishing 6-10, and added another victory to the total in 2012. In 2013, Carolina took several steps forward with a 12-4 mark that resulted in an NFC South championship. Then last year, after a dizzying series of personal setbacks (see below), Newton helped a team on a six-game slide right the ship just in time to capture another NFC South crown.
At least as much as Newton loves to win, he hates to lose. This team should continue to be a factor in the Super Bowl chase with Newton under center.
HE'S TOUGH AS NAILS: In his first career game, Newton showed off his unique mix of athleticism and physicality, leaping over some Cardinals and into some others for a touchdown – his first of an NFL record (for quarterbacks) 14 rushing touchdowns that season.
Newton's toughness was tested more than ever this past season. Offseason ankle surgery sidelined him until training camp, then a rib injury suffered in the preseason forced him to miss his first NFL game in the season opener despite his determination to play. Those tests were nothing compared to what happened last December, when Newton's truck flipped multiple times in a two-car accident and he suffered two broken bones in his back. Thirteen days later, he led the Panthers to a victory, moving around like nothing had ever happened.
Newton won't let anything derail his pursuit of success.
HE'S STILL IMPROVING: If not for the hurdles he had to overcome last season, Newton surely would have continued his upward trend. He blitzed the league as a rookie, then the league blitzed back his second season – yet Newton fought through it. His improvement in 2013 was obvious.
Newton will be the first to tell you that he hasn't played his best football yet. That's a good thing for Panthers fans, who have known Newton's capabilities since his NFL debut and have many reasons to believe he's growing into a quarterback that will play that way every Sunday.