Cam Newton began his NFL career on the same field where he ended his collegiate one and was spectacular. His 422 yards passing are a record for any rookie in his NFL debut. Yet he didn’t leave a winner.
A rookie on the other team made the game-winning play.
Patrick Peterson brushed off a long afternoon at cornerback with an 89-yard punt return for the go-ahead touchdown and the Arizona Cardinals escaped with a 28-21 victory over Newton’s Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The No. 1 pick in the draft who had struggled at times in the preseason, Newton completed 24 of 37 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
“He was everything everybody didn’t expect him to be,” said Steve Smith, who caught eight of those passes for 178 yards and both scores. “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. Steve Smith, who wore red-white-and-blue gloves and cleats, had eight catches for 178 yards for Carolina, including touchdown catches of 77 and 26 yards.
Kevin Kolb was 18 of 27 for 309 yards, including touchdown passes of 48 and 70 yards, in his first game for Arizona.
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. It was the second-longest punt return in franchise history.
“Yeah, he was pretty close,” Peterson said.
Kolb said “anybody else fair catches that thing.”
“That just shows you the confidence that he has in himself and how tough of a kid he is,” Kolb said. “He’s going to be a major weapon for us.”
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 to much.”
With the help of a roughing-the-passer penalty against Clark Haggans, 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.
“It was a bad pitch,” Kolb said. “I think he would probably say he took his eyes off it, I’d tell you it was a bad pitch. That’s the way a team works. We were lucky to overcome it.”
After forcing a punt, Arizona drove to the Panthers 5, but a crackback block penalty against Andre Roberts(notes) 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.”
The Panthers took over at their 36 with 1:03 to play in the half. Daryl Washington intercepted Newton’s pass over the middle, but the play was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty against Peterson.
Moments later, Smith beat Peterson in the corner of the end zone and Newton lofted the ball perfectly in place to give Carolina the lead in front of the stunned crowd.
Arizona went 54 yards in six plays on its first possession, with Wells scoring on the 7-yard run.
After the subsequent kickoff, the Panthers had a third-and-7 from their 23 when new defensive coordinator Ray Horton called a blitz.
In a mix up in the secondary, Smith was at least 20 yards behind the nearest defender, safety Kerry Rhodes. The Panthers’ star receiver ran untouched to the end zone to tie it at 7-7 with 7:11 left in the opening quarter.
Kolb’s pass under duress to wide open tight end Jeff King for 48 yards and a touchdown against his former team to tie it at 14-14, but Carolina took the kickoff and went 80 yards in eight plays to take a 21-14 lead, Newton leaping over the line for the score. His air-guitar strum of the football in celebration drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Kolb found Early Doucet over the middle and the receiver broke a tackle then dashed 70 yards for the tying score with 10:48 to play.
New Carolina coach Ron Rivera called it “a tough one to lose.”
“We are too young a football team to survive self-inflicted wounds,” he said.