- Ashley Fox
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Cam Newton understands the challenge. Never in the vast history of the National Football League has a rookie quarterback set the bar as high as Newton did last season, which makes the potential that he will fall into the dreaded sophomore slump that much greater.
How could Newton possibly replicate last season, when he set an NFL record with 14 rushing touchdowns and became the first player -- not rookie, player -- to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 500? How could Newton not tail off now that the opposition has 16 games on film to digest and months to devise ways to slow him down?
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has heard enough about the supposed sophomore slump and had a simple answer for why he believes Newton won't fall into one: "The sky may be the limit for this young man."
And Rivera very well could be right.
Rookie quarterbacks were in an impossible spot a year ago. It is hard enough to transition into the league out of college and walk in and assume control of a team and locker room as the franchise quarterback. It is harder still to do that without the benefit of an offseason, the way Newton and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton did right from the jump last season. Because of the lockout, they had no minicamps, no film sessions with their position coaches, no time inside their team's practice facilities to learn from their coaches or bond with their teammates. They got no real work until training camps hastily opened after the league and players union finally agreed that there was too much money at stake to continue the silliness of the lockout.
Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees could miss an offseason and not miss a beat. But Newton didn't even know what the beat was. He had no clue, and still he was spectacular, still he was dominant -- from the jump.
Remember Newton's first game? It was against Arizona at home. The Panthers lost by seven points, yes, but Newton racked up 422 passing yards and threw for three touchdowns. It was the most-ever -- by far -- passing yards in a rookie debut in league history, and tied Matthew Stafford's record for single-game passing yards in a rookie season.
Rivera had certainly liked what he had seen, but not until Panthers PR czar Charlie Dayton handed him a stat sheet and pointed to Newton's numbers did he know that Newton had thrown for 400 yards. Rivera's first reaction was, "What?" His second, he said: "We might have something special."
And then the next week against Green Bay, Newton did it again.
"From day one he throws for 400 yards in the first two games," Rivera said. "That was impressive."
It didn't all come easy for Newton. Despite those two sparkling performances to open the year, he didn't get his first win as a starter until Week 3, when the Panthers beat Jacksonville 16-10. Carolina lost five of its first six games and eight of its first 10. Overall for the year, the Panthers led in 14 of 16 games, including 10 in the fourth quarter, but of those 10 they won only six.
Carolina finished 6-10 and behind Newton's offensive production upped its scoring average from 12.2 points per game in 2010 to 25.4 points per game in 2011. Newton completed 60 percent of his passes for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions, and he rushed 126 times for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns, the most for a quarterback in NFL history.
But, there was more there.
"You left games on the table," Rivera said. "That is what bothers him and what bothers me."
After the season, Newton went to Rivera. He wanted to talk about the sophomore slump. He was cognizant of the concept and wanted to avoid it at all costs. Rivera told him it was simple: Work hard. So when Newton left, he grabbed a bunch of tape to break down on his own. He trained at the IMG Madden Football Academy and brought in some of his receivers to visit.
Since April, Newton has been spending as much time at the Panthers training facility as is allowed under the new collective bargaining agreement. And he continues to watch tape at home.
The Panthers, meanwhile, continue to try to build a viable team around him. They re-signed veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, who had 1,394 receiving yards last season, his most since 2008, to a three-year extension. They brought in new fullback Mike Tolbert to pair with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield and to help out on special teams. They've got a veteran offensive line, a strong No. 1 tight end in Jordan Gross and a defense that is welcoming back injured linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason.
But success for Carolina is dependent on Newton avoiding the sophomore slump. He knows it.
Asked to articulate Newton's expectations for this season, Rivera said: "As plain and simple as it is, it is to get better. Our ultimate vision is to win Super Bowls. Is that pie-in-the-sky? I don't think so. I know he doesn't think so."
With a second-year quarterback, is that really a realistic goal for this team this season?
"We'll see," Rivera said. "That's why you play the games."
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