Updated Sep 10, 2011 - 10:07 pm
QB debuts highlight Panthers-Cardinals opener
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Cam Newton returns to the scene of his greatest triumph as a college football quarterback, and he may hardly recognize the place.
Instead of Auburn fans cheering him on, as they did in the BCS championship game eight months ago, there will be deafening hostility. Rather than an undersized Oregon defense, the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick in the draft will face an NFL team scheming to confuse and flatten him at every turn.
Newton leads the Carolina Panthers into University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday to face the Arizona Cardinals, who have a new quarterback of their own in Kevin Kolb.
The crowd, with the roof closed, is among the noisiest in the NFL, and Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt expects it to be a major advantage.
"We are going to have a great crowd," he said, "and that will go a long way in helping us get the win in this first game."
That Newton is beginning his pro career on the same he field he ended his college one is "unique in itself but it's really irrelevant at the same time," he said.
"You can't still linger with those collegiate things that you have in your back pocket," Newton said. "You might as well clear you pockets out. Nobody cares."
He said he "slowly but surely" is feeling comfortable with the offense, learning the intricacies such as reading a defense, finding the "hot" receiver in blitz situations.
"I feel if I can get that 100 percent in this offense, watch out," Newton said.
His understanding of the pro game could be severely tested right off the bat.
New Arizona defensive coordinator Ray Horton has installed the Pittsburgh Steelers' system and plans to unleash a pass rush from every direction.
"We're going to pressure," Horton said. "That's what we do, and I don't care if they know it. We're coming after them."
New Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who interviewed for the Cardinals job that eventually went to Whisenhunt in 2007, knows that Newton's every move will be closely watched.
"It's not like he hasn't been under the microscope before," Rivera said. "He went through it before last year at Auburn. Obviously not on the NFL magnitude, but still on a national stage, and he handled it fairly well. Now I think he's doing a heck of a job. He understands it. What we try to do is make sure he has a good support group here with him."
Whatever happens, there will be no revolving quarterback door in Carolina, Rivera vowed.
"We're a young football team, we're a growing football team. Our intention is to grow for the future," he said. "We brought him in to lead this team, not to be the savior, but to lead this team. And we've made that commitment. We'll evaluate each week, but the commitment is for him to be our leader."
The game features teams that statistically had the worst two offenses in the NFL last year. The Panthers stumbled to a league-worst 2-12 record, but one of those victories came against Arizona.
The Cardinals were among the most active teams in acquiring new players once the lockout ended and they have seven new starters on offense compared with the opener a year ago. Chief among them is Kolb. After Kurt Warner led Arizona to consecutive NFC West titles, then retired, the Cardinals' quarterback play was awful a year ago, a major factor in the team's 5-11 season and last-place finish in the worst division in the NFL.
Acutely aware of the need for a major upgrade, Arizona sent standout cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round draft pick to Philadelphia to obtain Kolb, then gave the quarterback a five-year, $63 million contract, with $21 million guaranteed.
Kolb was the starter in the season opener a year ago for the Eagles, only to be knocked out of the game with a concussion. Michael Vick replaced him and never relinquished the job.
Kolb will be making his eighth career NFL start on Sunday. He said he is not out to show on one afternoon that he is worth what the Cardinals paid.
"It's going to be a long-term investment hopefully, so I don't have to prove it this game," Kolb said. "I'm not going to put that pressure on myself. I learned from last year some of the things I did that worked for me, and as long as we come out with a 'w,' I don't care what my stats are."
He has proclaimed himself in a "perfect" situation for his skills. Already, he and Larry Fitzgerald have an obvious chemistry. The two connected on an 80-yard touchdown play against San Diego in the preseason.
"I don't have expectations of him having a certain completion number or him doing this or him doing that," Whisenhunt said. "What I want to see him do is just what he did in the preseason, and that's operate our offense, be able to make some of the plays he made. ... If he can do that, regardless of what they do to us defensively, we are going to have a chance."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
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