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Carolina Panthers rookie QB Cam Newton defying expectations heading into game against Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cam Newton, largely seen as a project after being picked first in the NFL draft, has helped make the Panthers a more dangerous foe despite their 3-8 record.

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Cam Newton, largely seen as a project after being picked first in the NFL draft, has helped make the Panthers a more dangerous foe despite their 3-8 record.


Scandal could not stop him, and controversy could not slow him down. The skeptics could not touch him, and the critics never had a chance.

He has just gotten here and already Cam Newton has arrived.

It has been a very, very long time since the NFL has seen a newcomer like the Carolina Panthers quarterback, in town to face the Bucs on Sunday. He is a rookie who carries himself as if he has been here for a decade, a beginner who has been in so many highlight reels he deserves a production credit.

Already, it seems, Newton is in a hurry to get to stardom.

And for the defenseless defenders of the Tampa Bay Bucs, the next challenge is to try to get in the way.

There have been easier assignments, you know. Newton can throw, and the Bucs have not rushed the passer very well. He can run, and the Bucs have not been a good tackling team. He ends up in the end zone a lot, and the Bucs have struggled to keep teams out.

Now, here the Bucs are: ready to see Cam a lot.

Time was, this would have been the best news possible for the Bucs defense. Those guys loved young quarterbacks the way Hannibal Lecter loved fava beans. The best Bucs defenses were too fast, too physical, too relentless for newbies to have a chance. Ask Donovan McNabb. Ask Michael Vick. Ask Matt Ryan. Ask the others who got spankings when they were kids.

On the other hand, this is a different Bucs defense, and Newton is a different type of rookie, and if the Bucs are going to be successful Sunday, they are going to have to remind a quarterback of his age.

Not many have done that this year. Newton has made the Panthers a little more dangerous, a little more credible than the team that finished 2-14 a year ago. Put it this way: Wouldn't you like the Bucs chances a lot more if, say, Jimmy Clausen got a promotion between now and Sunday?

The thing is, nobody saw this coming. Remember all the questions about Newton before the draft? People wondered about his character, and about his accuracy, and about how long his transition to the NFL game might take, and about how much the NFL lockout might slow the progress of the No. 1 overall pick out of Auburn.

Instead, Newton has been terrific. Consider this: Only three rookie quarterbacks in history have thrown for more than Newton's 3,093, and he has five games left to collect the 647 yards he needs to pass Peyton Manning's rookie record. He has 10 rushing touchdowns, two short of the NFL record for quarterbacks of any age.

Ask yourself, then. How many passing yards do you think Newton gets Sunday? How many rushing yards?

The answers, of course, will probably decide the game.

"Cam has done a nice job," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "He's playing very confident. He's throwing the ball downfield. He's going through his progressions well. He's run the ball well. He's a good football player.

"He's young, he's still growing. He makes some mistakes. He throws some balls into coverage. He gives you some chances."

The thing is, Newton pretty much agrees with Morris. For all the praise he has received, Newton acts as if his rookie year hasn't been all that, after all. He suggests that if he hadn't thrown so many interceptions (14), his team might have won more than three games.

"Absolutely," Newton said. "I don't think I've played up to my standards. I haven't had that game I could be satisfied with yet. I'm still striving to be the elite quarterback I can be.

"Look at my stats. I'll be the first person (to say) that I'm not 100 percent satisfied with what I've done. The turnover rate is one thing I'm not proud of. I have to do a better job of protecting the ball. If I had done that, we would have won more."

For the Bucs, and for the Panthers, this could be the start of a series of pretty good quarterback duels. Josh Freeman is 23; Newton is 22. Before they are done, these guys could face off 20 times or more.

So far, the difference is this: Newton has exceeded his expectations; this year, Freeman has not. Still, their numbers as far as touchdowns, interceptions and completion percentages are pretty much the same. The debate over who is the better quarterback has just begun.

As it turns out, the Bucs defense is going to get a vote in that argument, too.

It starts by making Newton look like a rookie.

And avoid letting him have the same effect on them.

Carolina Panthers rookie QB Cam Newton defying expectations heading into game against Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 9:40pm]
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