Problems at the quarterback position plagued both the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals throughout the 2010 NFL season, but each believes it's now found the solution to its most glaring area of need.
The Panthers officially begin the Cam Newton era with Sunday's visit to University of Phoenix Stadium for a Week 1 clash with an Arizona squad that's provided a fresh new start for new triggerman Kevin Kolb.
These two teams both took big steps backward in 2010, with the Cardinals following up a 10-win campaign and an NFC West title the previous year with a thoroughly disappointing 5-11 record and the Panthers going from eight victories in 2009 to a league-worst two last season. Poor play under center was a common theme in both cases, and each acknowledged that weakness by making splashy offseason moves to spearhead its rebuilding plan.
Carolina grabbed its quarterback of the future by selecting Newton, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who guided Auburn University to an undefeated season capped by a win in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game, with the No. 1 overall selection in this past April's draft. Arizona would go the more experienced route to find an alternative, trading talented cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick in next year's draft to Philadelphia in exchange for the highly-regarded Kolb.
The future is already now for Newton, with first-year Panthers head coach Ron Rivera tabbing the exciting 22-year-old to start the season opener over fellow youngster Jimmy Clausen, who struggled noticeably in 10 starts as a rookie during Carolina's 2010 free-fall.
Arizona showed its belief in and commitment to Kolb, who began last season as the Eagles' No. 1 field general before getting hurt and eventually losing the gig to a resurgent Michael Vick, by handing the fifth-year pro a five-year, $63.5 million contract with $21.5 million in guarantees shortly after the trade.
He'll take over an offense that sagged under the direction of Derek Anderson, released in late July after floundering in a nine-start stint last year. The Cardinals ranked next-to-last in the NFL in both total yards and passing yards, while scoring 13 points or less in half of their 16 games. One of those occasions took place in a 19-12 loss to the lowly Panthers in Charlotte this past December.
Carolina was actually worse in both categories, averaging a meager 143.1 passing yards and 258.3 total yards per game with Clausen and the since- departed Matt Moore at the controls, while also finishing at the bottom of the league with 196 points scored.
Anderson, incidentally, is now competing with Clausen to be Newton's primary backup after signing a one-year deal with the Panthers after being cut loose.
Kolb was one of several offseason additions designed to quickly restore Arizona back to respectability. The team also brought in accomplished tight end Todd Heap, guard Daryn Colledge and linebacker Stewart Bradley via free agency, along with a pair of ex-Panthers -- cornerback Richard Marshall and tight end Jeff King.
Carolina chose to instead invest in-house, agreeing to lucrative long-term contracts with such cornerstone players as running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Charles Johnson, linebackers Jon Beason and James Anderson and center Ryan Kalil prior to the season.
Carolina has an 8-2 lead in its all-time regular-season series with Arizona and has prevailed in seven consecutive non-playoff tilts against the Cardinals. The Panthers have also never lost in four lifetime matchups on the road versus Arizona, which includes victories at University of Phoenix Stadium in both 2007 (25-10) and 2009 (34-21).
Arizona's 33-13 road win over Carolina in the 2008 NFC Divisional Playoffs stands as the only postseason meeting between these clubs.
Ken Whisenhunt owns a 1-4 record against the Panthers during his tenure as the Cardinals' head coach.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
With Newton still an unfinished product with zero experience in an NFL regular- season surrounding, expect Carolina to unleash its excellent two-back tandem of Williams (361 rushing yards, 1 TD, 11 receptions) -- now fully recovered from a sprained foot that limited him to six games a year ago -- and powerful complement Jonathan Stewart (770 rushing yards, 3 total TD), who racked up 137 yards on 27 carries in last December's win over the Cardinals. The outstanding duo both eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau in 2009, a year in which the Panthers placed third in the NFL in rushing offense. The passing game is far less of a sure thing, with Newton revealing his rawness as a thrower by completing a mere 42 percent of his attempts during the preseason, though the athletic rookie is a dangerous scrambler who should pose a major challenge to enemy defenses with his legs. He will have a few reliable targets to work with in his debut, however, as top wide receiver Steve Smith (46 receptions, 2 TD) owns five 1,000-yard seasons and four Pro Bowl citations to his credit and the new tight- end combo of former Bear Greg Olsen (41 receptions, 5 TD) and ex-Saint Jeremy Shockey (41 receptions, 3 TD) is a formidable one. The Panthers also added wide receiver Legedu Naanee (23 receptions, 1 TD with Chargers), the favorite to start opposite Smith after promising sophomore David Gettis (37 receptions, 3 TD) tore his ACL in training camp, in free agency.
While the Arizona offense was miserable for the majority of last season, a subpar showing on the defensive end also played a large part in the club's regression. The Cardinals surrendered the fourth-most yards in the NFL (373.6 ypg) while ranking 30th in both points allowed (27.1 ypg) and against the run (145.2 ypg), and were gouged for 177 yards on the ground by the Panthers in last year's meeting. The insertion of 2010 first-round pick Dan Williams (38 tackles) into a full-time role at nose tackle could help bolster that area, while the inside-linebacker pairing of leading stopper Paris Lenon (124 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and second-year man Daryl Washington (74 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is solid. Arizona is also strong at safety with the returns of four-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson (88 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), who's expected to play on Sunday despite missing the entire preseason with a partially torn biceps, and veteran playmaker Kerry Rhodes (90 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD), but there's considerable change at the cornerback position following the trade of Rodgers-Cromartie and projected starter Greg Toler (87 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) tearing his ACL two weeks ago. With gifted rookie Patrick Peterson, the fifth overall pick in this past draft, and former practice-squad member A.J. Jefferson slated to man those spots, the Cardinals will be coming in short on seasoning.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Kolb (1197 passing yards, 7 TD, 7 INT) will no longer have to look over his shoulder now that he's clearly the main man with his new team, though the 27- year-old still needs to prove beyond any doubt he can be a prominent quarterback after posting just a 3-4 record in seven career starts with the Eagles and an overall touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-to-14. He'll surely be aided by the presence of one of the game's truly elite wide receivers in five-time Pro Bowl honoree Larry Fitzgerald (90 receptions, 1137 yards, 6 TD), who's caught at least 90 balls and averaged 10 touchdowns over the last four seasons and burned the Panthers for 125 yards on nine games last year, while Heap (40 receptions, 5 TD with Ravens) is a quality tight end and an upgrade over what the team has had at the position in years past. Colledge, a five-year starter at left guard in Green Bay, should also bring a boost to an offensive line that allowed 50 sacks in 2010, tied with Carolina for the second most in the league. With wideout Steve Breaston leaving for Kansas City in the offseason, youngsters Andre Roberts (24 receptions, 2 TD) and Early Doucet (26 receptions, 1 TD) will be counted on for increased production, as will running back Beanie Wells after the 2009 first-round choice managed just 397 yards and two scores for the league's worst rushing offense (86.8 ypg). If healthy, he'll carry more of the load this year with rookie Ryan Williams sustaining a season- ending knee injury in the preseason.
The Panthers ended 2010 ranked 18th in total defense (335.9 ypg), a respectable finish considering how much it was on the field due to the offense's ineptitude, and should benefit from the teachings of Rivera, the architect of a San Diego stop unit that yielded the fewest yards in the NFL in 2010. The crew will once again be led by Johnson (62 tackles), who filled the void left by Julius Peppers' free-agent departure by producing a career-high 11 1/2 sacks last year, and middle linebacker Beason (119 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), a Pro Bowl selection in each of the past three seasons. Carolina also gets strongside starter Thomas Davis back after sitting out all of 2010 with a torn ACL, while the team has high hopes for second-year end Greg Hardy (26 tackles, 3 sacks) as a pass-rushing complement to Johnson. The biggest question mark is at defensive tackle, with rookie third-round picks Sione Fua and Terrell McClain opening the season as starters, while Marshall's exodus has left Carolina with little experienced depth at cornerback other than eighth-year pro Chris Gamble (35 tackles).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Running the football. The Panthers prevailed in last year's matchup with the Cardinals mainly due to a 177-43 advantage in rushing yards, and it'll be critical for DeAngelo Williams and Stewart to have big days with an unproven quarterback in Newton leading the offense. More balance on the Arizona side would be a boon to Kolb as well, especially with Carolina fielding a pair of rookies on the interior line.
Pressuring the passer. Though Newton didn't turn the ball over in the preseason, his lack of experience suggests he'll be prone to mistakes if the Cardinals can force the youngster into making hasty decisions. Both of these teams gave up 50 sacks last year, a factor in the poor overall passing production for each.
Big plays on defense. The Cardinals weren't good defensively last year, but they were opportunistic, scoring a league-high eight touchdowns on fumble and interception returns. Arizona forced 18 turnovers in its five wins, and had only 12 takeaways in the 11 losses.
The Cardinals are far from a finished product at this stage, but they're still further along than a Carolina team that will be breaking in three rookies on Sunday, including one at the game's most important position. The Panthers' strong running game won't be as effective if Newton can't at least threaten the defense with his arm, and he's yet to prove he can do so at the professional level. Kolb, on the other hand, does give Arizona a better option under center than last year's forgettable trio of Anderson, John Skelton and Max Hall, and the Cardinals should be able to run the ball more efficiently as well with an improved pass attack. Carolina will see better days than it had for most of 2010, but this doesn't look to be one of them.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 27, Panthers 14