When the Vikings drafted Christian Ponder, it was big news in Minnesota. He was just the third QB drafted in the first round in the 51-year history of the franchise. That can be a lot of pressure.
Imagine the burden of being the first overall pick. When the worst team in the league drafts a QB with the first pick, the bar is set enormously high. The legacy isn't measured in wins or losses, it's measured in Super Bowl rings.
It was clear that Cam Newton was the premier quarterback in the 2011 draft. The only question was how long it would take him to take over the offense. The Panthers had taken QB Jimmy Clausen in the first round of the previous draft and there wasn't a veteran established QB in the way. After a solid showing in the preseason, Newton was handed the starting job in Week 1. What the NFL has witnessed since has been nothing short of remarkable.
The first phase of Newton's game is his passing. There were some critics that said he could get ruined by being thrown out too early because he didn't have the innate passing skills needed for a drop-back NFL passer. He silenced those critics by throwing for 422 yards and two touchdowns in his NFL debut. His bandwagon started taking on passengers in Week 2, when he lit up Green Bay for 432 passing yards, but it was his three interceptions that killed what was a fast start and a big early lead for the Panthers in a 30-23 loss. While his yardage numbers haven't reached the record-setting 854 yards he had in his first two weeks, he has become a more efficient passer.
For the season, Newton has a passer rating of 82.8. In his last four games, he has posted passer ratings above his season total. In last week's game against the Redskins, he posted a personal best passer rating of 127.5 – completing 18 of 23 passes for 256 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
Picks have been Newton's only kryptonite in an enigmatic start to his pro career. He thrown at least one interception in five of seven games and, for the season, he has more interceptions (nine) than passing touchdowns (eight). But, almost literally, his passing is only half of his equation.
When the lockout deprived Newton of the typical offseason learning-curve adjustment, conventional wisdom said the Panthers would be relying heavily on their running game. After all, they had drafted two running backs in the first round – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart – and the two were among the most deadly RB tandems in the league. But that was pre-Newton.
Running as a major component in Newton's game. Williams was re-signed to a lucrative contract, but, through seven games, he has just 68 carries and hasn't had more than 12 carries in a game. His only touchdown came when he broke a 69-yard touchdown run against the Saints. For the season, he has averaged five yards a carry, yet hasn't been saddled and ridden. The same is true with Stewart. He has scored touchdowns each of the last two weeks, but has just 58 rushes all season – less than nine attempts a game. He has averaged 4.8 yards per rush, but, given his minimal use, he has just 278 rushing yards – only 12 more than his quarterback.
What made the Williams-Stewart ticket so successful in Carolina was that they found a way to use both of them when both were healthy. One would carry 15-20 times a game, while the other carried 10-15 times. Newton has cut into that significantly, because now carries are being split three ways. Newton has not only cut into their numbers, he has carved his own niche.
Through seven games, the quarterback has never rushed less than seven times in any of them, recording 57 carries for 266 yards – a 4.7-yard average. He has rushed as many times or more than Stewart in five of seven games and has rushed for more yards than Williams in four of seven games. But perhaps most startling is his nose for the end zone.
Newton's passing numbers look like a yardage fiend (300 yards a game), but not a player who finishes drives (eight TD passes in seven games). However, he has a whopping seven rushing touchdowns to go with it. He has scored a rushing TD in six of seven games – the most games with a rushing touchdown of any player in the NFL, much less a quarterback.
Prior to this year, the only rookie quarterback who ever rushed for seven touchdowns was Vince Young – then of the Tennessee Titans. He needed a full season to set the record. It took Newton just seven games to tie it.
As the Vikings prepare for Newton, it will likely be similar to how teams prepared for Daunte Culpepper, who ironically saw his career effectively come to end on a called draw play at Carolina that resulted in the shredding of three of his four knee ligaments – an injury from which he never fully recovered or regained his pre-injury form. If anything, Newton is Culpepper, only faster and more elusive.
The Vikings have a defense that is susceptible to scrambling quarterbacks. They bring a lot of pressure up front and drop linebackers into coverage, creating big openings if an adept running QB breaks containment and has open field in front of him. Newton is becoming the new definition of that threat.
When the Panthers drafted Newton, it was clear he was going to be their starter eventually. He was the first in his draft class to become a starter and is creating some exciting chapters in his early legacy. It hasn't translated to a lot of victories yet, but clearly seems to be setting the groundwork for big things to come.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Newton brings multi-dimensional QB skills
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