By the end of his rookie year, the No. 1 overall draft pick and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who had led his college team to a national championship had won only six NFL games. His team missed the playoffs by a country mile. Some were calling for his coach to be fired.
His reputation, once sullied by an arrest at a college in Florida, was cleansed by the way he carried himself as a leader at age 21. He passed for 4,000 yards and 21 touchdowns, historically great numbers for a first-year player. But more impressive, he handled the mental demands and responsibilities of the position like a veteran.
So look where Cam Newton and the Panthers are today. At 14-1, having lost their quest for a perfect season with a defeat last week at Atlanta, they can clinch homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win today over the Bucs or an Arizona loss.
When Panthers coach Ron Rivera looks across the sideline at Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, he sees a transcendent player like Newton with a nearly identical resume and numbers as a rookie.
"The thing everybody's got to do is be patient," Rivera said. "I mean, this is a young (Bucs) football team with a young quarterback. We're in our fifth season with our quarterback, and look at where we're at now. I see so much similarities between (Winston) and (Newton), I'm going, 'Man, this guy is going to be competitive for a long time.' So I think everybody just needs to be patient. The third year is when you really expect things to happen, and I expect (the Bucs) going into next year ready to roll.
"I think it all starts with Jameis. I think Jameis has done a nice job. I like who he is. I think he's a competitor. I think his teammates are buying into that because you watch when he runs the ball, you always look for how his teammates respond when he gets tackled, and you see his teammates over there to pick him up and push anybody that's around him. I think offensively they've done exactly what they need to do in terms of development."
Winston, 21, and Newton, 26, have vastly different skill sets, to be sure. At 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds, Super Cam is as big as some defensive ends, and he can run a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. In addition to becoming the first rookie to pass for 4,000 yards, he also rushed for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first year.
But coming out of Auburn, where Newton won a national championship in 2010, he wasn't nearly the polished pocket passer he is today, and his football acumen was lower than Winston's. Before the 2011 draft, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden grilled Newton on the complex language of play-calling in the NFL and asked Newton to let him know what an Auburn play sounded like. After stammering about being put on the spot, Newton couldn't come up with anything more complex than "thirty-six."
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Bucs receiver Louis Murphy, a teammate of Newton's at the University of Florida (2007-08) and at Carolina in 2012, said the quarterbacks' winning attitude is their most common trait.
"I love those attributes in Jameis and in Cam," Murphy said. "They both are passionate players, and Jameis is our leader at a young age. I see a lot of parallels between the two, having played with both of them. For Jameis, the sky is the limit. He's going to be very special. He's a great person, and he's a leader. He's vocal. He handles his business. He's in early; he leaves late. So a lot of the characteristics he has, those are big intangibles."
The quarterbacks aren't the only thing the Bucs and Panthers have in common. Rivera was the Bears' defensive coordinator from 2004-06 under now-Bucs coach Lovie Smith, and the teams share the same Cover 2 defensive system and run-first offensive philosophy.
Carolina has a productive, penetrating defensive tackle in Kawann Short and active linebackers in Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, who was taken ninth overall in the 2012 draft, two spots after the Bucs selected safety Mark Barron, since traded to the Rams. Linebacker Lavonte David went in the second round of the same draft to the Bucs.
That the Panthers were like the Bucs a few years ago gives Tampa Bay hope, Smith said.
"It seems like you have to be really down and get an opportunity to get a couple of players," he said. "Getting Cam Newton sends you in the right direction. Getting Luke Kuechly sends you in the right direction, and they have done a great job with their personnel. (They) just kind of stayed the course of who they were.
"We've seen them get better and better, unfortunately for the rest of us in the NFC South. But it is a model of what we're going to do."
Winston and Newton even had to deal with off-field legal problems in college. Winston's most serious was an accusation of sexual assault at Florida State. The State Attorney's Office said there wasn't enough evidence to charge him. As a sophomore at Florida in 2008, Newton was arrested for purchasing a stolen computer. Burglary charges were dropped once he completed a pretrial intervention program. The arrest led to him transferring to Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, a two-year junior college, before going to Auburn for his final college season.
With 283 passing yards today, Winston — only a tad smaller than Newton at 6-4 and 231 — can join Newton and Andrew Luck as the only NFL rookies to throw for 4,000 yards. He also has been fleet afoot more than expected, rushing for 199 yards and five touchdowns.
"It's easy to say 'Yeah, I see those (similarities),' " Winston said. "But the one thing about that guy that you've got to love — he's a winner. And that's what I want to be. I want to be a winner. What comes with being a winner is getting the other guys to want to be winners with you. I believe that's what he did.
"I can be like Cam, but right now I'm not. That's something that I would love to be in the future, but one thing I want someone to always say about me — and what you can say about him right now, especially while he's growing — (is) he's a winner. This is a winning business, so that's pretty good."