Published September 11, 2011
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Cam Newton's eye-popping numbers will grab the headlines on Monday. The Carolina Panthers must be even more thrilled about what's to come down the road for a franchise that bottomed out at 2-14 a year ago.
The Panthers lost Sunday's opener 28-21 to the Arizona Cardinals, yet the future seemed so much brighter than it did when the day began.
"I thought Cam's performance was very strong," new Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He gave us an opportunity to win. He made one mistake on one throw. Other than that he played the way you would expect a starting quarterback in the NFL to play."
The No. 1 draft pick out of Auburn completed 24 of 37 passes for 422 yards — the most for any rookie in his NFL debut and tied with Matt Stafford for most for a rookie in any game.
"He was everything everybody didn't expect him to be," said Steve Smith, who caught eight of those passes for 178 yards, including TD plays of 77 and 26 yards.
"He was on point, he made some great runs, he made some great reads, made some fantastic throws. He made some throws out there that honestly as a receiver it made it easy to catch them."
The statistics seemed to mean little to the big, young quarterback, who was unbeaten in his BCS championship season at Auburn.
"The last time I lost a game was Navarro Junior College," Newton said. "What do you want me to say, it feels great? It is not a comfortable feeling for me."
The Panthers had first down at the Arizona 11 late in the game, and even got an extra down on an offside call, but failed to score.
"There's going to be a lot more things I can look back on tomorrow after I watch the film," Newton said. "One thing I know is you have to capitalize. When you're in the red zone, you can't take the sack, you can't digress."
The Cardinals sacked Newton four times.
"He has a lot to learn," Rivera said, "but I can't be more pleased with his rookie performance today."
Patrick Peterson returned a punt 89 yards with seven minutes to play for what proved to be the deciding touchdown.
Peterson, the fifth overall pick in the draft out of LSU, was not surprised by Newton's debut.
"I can't wait to see what he's going to do throughout the season because there were so many critics coming into the draft," Peterson said. "I thought he had a pretty good night tonight, so we'll definitely see what the season brings for Mr. Cam."
The same could be said for Mr. Peterson.
He hauled in the punt and broke a tackle and darted downfield on the long run but almost paid dearly for a showboat move at the finish.
Peterson began to strut, not realizing Carolina's Mike Goodson was gaining on him. Peterson glanced around, realized the error of his ways, and sprinted away, diving over the goal line to put Arizona ahead 28-21 with 7:15 to play.
"Yeah, he was pretty close," Peterson said.
Peterson acknowledges he has a lot to learn about the intricacies of playing cornerback in the NFL. As a punt returner, though, he's a natural.
"With me being a defensive back, I barely have a chance to get my hands on the ball," Peterson said. "That's why I love punt returns so much."
Kevin Kolb was 18 of 27 for 309 yards, including touchdown pass plays of 48 and 70 yards, in his first game for Arizona.
With the help of a roughing-the-passer penalty, the Panthers drove downfield late and had first down at the 11.
Four consecutive passes were incomplete, but an offside penalty on fourth down moved the ball to the Arizona 5 and gave Carolina one more chance. Newton threw over the middle to Goodson to the 2, but he was a yard shy of the first down and the Cardinals ran out the clock.
Both of Newton's TD passes came in the first half as Carolina took a 14-7 lead at the break.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, drove inside the Carolina 6 twice in the second quarter and came away with nothing.
On second-and-goal from the 4, Beanie Wells, who rushed for 90 yards on 18 carries including a 7-yard touchdown run, muffed a pitch from Kolb and Carolina's Thomas Davis recovered.
After forcing a punt, Arizona drove to the Panthers 5, but a crackback block penalty against Andre Roberts drove the team back, and Jay Feely's 36-yard field goal try was wide left. Feely was 14-for-14 from inside the 40 a year ago.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the team needs to clean up those mistakes, and he said that the defense "was close but didn't make enough plays."
Rivera called it "a tough one to lose." He talked about all the penalties and other mistakes.
"We are too young a football team to survive self-inflicted wounds," he said.
Notes: Panthers middle linebacker Jon Beason was taken to the locker room on a cart in the second half after reinjuring his left ankle. Rivera said he was unsure of the severity of the injury. ... Doucet had three catches for 105 yards, his first career 100-yard receiving game. ... King's TD pass was his career long. ... Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling left the game in the second half with a bruised right hand. ... Larry Fitzgerald, double-covered all day, caught three passes for 62 yards.