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High expectations for Panthers QB Newton in second season

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Associated Press
9/6/2012 7:37:21 PM
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Just when you think you have him pinned down, bam!, there Cam Newton goes racing for a first down.

Or throwing a touchdown pass.

Or doing something else spectacularly.

Of all the talented players in the NFL, the toughest for defensive co-ordinators to figure out might be the Panthers quarterback.

That's because Newton can hurt you in so many ways.

Newton threw for an NFL rookie record 4,051 yards in 2011. And when he wasn't burning folks with his strong arm, he was making them look foolish with his feet, rushing for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns -- the most ever by a quarterback.

His 35 combined touchdowns were more than what half the teams in the league scored last season. If Newton wasn't on opponents' radar coming in as a rookie, he certainly is now after the Panthers went from 32nd in league scoring in 2010 to fifth.

So what does the Offensive Rookie of the Year expect teams will do to slow him down?

"I was hoping you were going to tell me," Newton said coyly.

Newton told The Associated Press he's not spoken to any other quarterbacks around the league about what to expect this season. Nor does he feel the need to. He's not going to change his approach when the Panthers open the season Sunday at Tampa Bay.

"I'm going in with the same mindset as last year: very, very hungry," Newton said. "There's only one goal for every week when we play and that's to win. There's nothing else."

Some NFL quarterbacks have struggled in Year 2 after successful rookie seasons. Others have avoided that so-called sophomore slump.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera and others around the league see a multitude of challenges ahead for his young signal caller.

A year ago, folks didn't know to expect from Newton -- or from the Panthers new coaching staff, for that matter. Offensive co-ordinator Rob Chudzinski spent part of last off-season researching what Newton did well at Auburn and borrowed a few pages from the Tigers' playbook, particularly how they employed the zone read option.

Newton felt comfortable running it, and it translated to success in the NFL. He ran for 51 first downs in 2011, fifth most in the league and by far the most among quarterbacks.

But Rivera said teams will be better prepared for it this year.

"Probably the first three or four teams we play have already started looking at the zone read concept," Rivera said. "They've probably looked at some of what the college teams are doing to stop it and trying to get a better understanding of it. They'll look at it and say 'This is how they handle it."'

Of course, knowing how to handle it and actually stopping it are two different things.

At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Newton is one of the biggest and strongest quarterbacks you'll ever come across, not easy to bring down even when you know he's coming your way. Combine that with outstanding speed and quickness and you have a dynamic player at the most important position on the field.

Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano called Newton one of the elite athletes in the league.

"There are a lot of different things he does for the offence," Schiano said. "Someone asked me the other day, 'How do you shut him down?' I don't think you can. I think you just try to limit him."

Rivera expects defences will try to confuse him with different looks.

"I think they'll try to move their fronts and disguise their coverages as much as they can," Rivera said.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan knows all about that.

Ryan said his transition to Year 2 wasn't easy -- his interception total went up and his yards per pass went down. He said people forget that as a second-year quarterback you face eight to 10 new teams you didn't see as a rookie.

"I think people make adjustments to the talents you bring," Ryan said. "... And I do think them having tape on you and scouting what you do as a player and having tendencies, that's one of the things that makes it more difficult."

Giants quarterback David Carr, like Newton a former No. 1 overall pick, said there are other challenges to face in the locker room. He said teammates naturally begin looking to you as the problem solver in your second season, the guy who'll take them to the next level.

"I think the biggest thing in that situation is just kind of taking ownership," Carr said, looking back on his first few years with the expansion Houston Texans. "In his first year he was probably just trying to learn what he was doing with his job. As you go into your second year you try to find yourself coaching a little bit more and teaching those guys, and that kind of helps you with the process."

There will be off-field challenges, too.

Former NFL general manager-team president Bill Polian, who had a close-up view of the beginning of Peyton Manning's career in Indianapolis and Kerry Collins' start-up process here in Carolina before that, said the biggest transition for Newton may be dealing with the escalating pressures away from the stadium.

Expectations are significantly higher in Carolina. Hey, even Newton's centre Ryan Kalil took out a full-page advertisement in a local newspaper before training camp guaranteeing Carolina fans a Super Bowl victory.

"The fans are going to have to understand he's still young and he's going to make mistakes," Polian said. "And Cam will have to know that as well. He can't get down on himself. There's going to be a lot of outside pressure, so he has to learn to handle that. It's not easy."

Newton's busy off-season included commercials for Under Armour and Gatorade and appearing on the cover of GQ. But teammates said all that attention hasn't given him a big head.

In fact, Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson said Newton is still able to laugh at himself when teammates razz him about the super-tight knit cardigan sweater he wore on the GQ cover.

"He's one of the guys, and he likes being around his teammates," Anderson said.

Newton shook his head when asked about all of the ribbing, particularly from the offensive line.

"Listen, what can I tell you? You have offensive linemen who are jealous that the cover is not big enough for them," he said with a smile.

Newton said the vibe this year in Carolina is different. Sure, the Panthers went 6-10 last year, but they've quickly become a chic pick to make the NFC playoffs. And make no doubt about it, a large part of that is because of the guy who wears No. 1 and celebrates touchdowns by pretending to rip open his shirt like Superman.

"With Cam Newton, it's pretty simple: He has the talent and he has the right mindset," said Giants GM Jerry Reese. "He has the physical skills and the mentality to succeed. It's the combination you want for a quarterback."

As for the expectations surrounding him and the Panthers, Newton said that doesn't concern him.

"What's already understood in my situation, is the buzz, the potential and the expectations are already out there," Newton said. "And I certainly know they're high expectations. But you'd better believe none of those expectations are higher than mine."

Cam Newton (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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