CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You can spend a lot of time talking about the arm strength, overall athletic ability and other raw gifts that helped make Cam Newton(notes) and Christian Ponder(notes) great draft prospects. But Sunday, the most important test for each was how they handled adversity.
In Ponder's case, there were enough staging errors that the Minnesota Vikings' 24-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers could have turned into a football version of "Plan 9 from Outer Space". At least twice during the game, Ponder tried to play-action fake, only to find there was no running back behind him to help sell the deception. Then there were two glaring errors over a five-play stretch in the second quarter. First, Ponder nearly fell down before handing off to running back Adrian Peterson. Moments later, there was the busted play that Ponder managed to get back to the line of scrimmage.
For most guys making their second NFL start, this would have been unnerving stuff. Heck, for Minnesota offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who has spent the past 13 years toggling between his current job and quarterbacks coach at various places, it was enough to make him yank out what's left of his hair.
"I was over there screaming," Musgrave said, revealing a small amount of embarrassment beneath his demure postgame approach. "You expect things to be run the way you design and practice them. When they're not, it's upsetting.
"[Ponder] didn't let it get to him and that's a really good sign."
Blessed with budding-actor looks (his four-day beard and rugged looks scream People magazine), Ponder never let on that there were problems. Yeah, there were some early jitters when Ponder tried to scramble twice early on, only to discover that the defensive guys at this level are a little faster than he expected. Still, he kept his composure and kept slinging one impressive throw after another, particularly on throws to the left, where Carolina was forcing him to go in hopes of getting a mistake on a secondary read.
"It's really important to the rest of the guys that the quarterback not show any worry when things go wrong," said Ponder, the 12th overall pick in April's NFL draft. "Everybody is looking at you, so you have to keep your composure."
"Everybody" is more than just the huddle. The entire Vikings organization is on the Ponder Plan now after watching veteran Donovan McNabb(notes) unravel in the first six games. At 2-6, the Vikings are out of the title picture this year. The memories of the 2009 NFC championship game run are completely faded. That said, with still-young defensive end Jared Allen(notes), defensive tackle Kevin Williams(notes), receiver-runner Percy Harvin(notes) and Peterson, the Vikings have the nucleus to get there again faster than many other downtrodden teams.
[ Related: Percy Harvin exchanges blows with Panthers' defender ]
And they know that a quick-evolving Ponder can make it happen that much faster.
"I've never been around that franchise guy that you draft and develop on your own," said Allen, who has played with the likes of Trent Green(notes) and Brett Favre(notes) earlier in his career. "That's what every team is trying to get."
"That was one of the things I thought about when I did the long-term deal," said Greenway, who re-upped for five years and $41 million in September. "With Christian, you can see where the future is going with this organization and it's exciting. What you saw [Sunday] only confirmed that."
Then again, Greenway also saw up close why people in Carolina are so geeked up. While the Vikings forced Newton to twice fumble on sacks, he more than proved that his talent is special. On the second play of Carolina's second possession (after already forcing one fumble), Greenway came clean on a blitz against Newton. Greenway had him dead to rights until Newton sidestepped the rush at the last second and completed a long gain that was nullified by a penalty.
"I didn't almost have a free shot at him – I had a free shot at him," Greenway said with equal parts frustration for the miss and respect for Newton's vast throwing and running skill. "He has some serious talent."
Or as Allen put it: "What makes him dangerous is that he's a runner who is working hard to be a pocket passer. He's not just taking off at the first sign of trouble."
[ Yahoo Sports Radio: Jared Allen on Vikes' comeback win ]
This was quietly another strong performance for Newton, who has already posted two 400-yard passing games, passed for 11 touchdowns and run for seven in half a season. The two fumbles were the only significant blemishes as he went his second straight game without an interception (he had nine in the first six games) and established a new high with three touchdown passes.
The scoring throws were a study in Newton's preternatural throwing skills. They were a combination of short (a 1-yard yard toss to tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes) on a half-roll to the right), intermediate (a 22-yarder on a crossing route to wide receiver Steve Smith that Smith ran in from 10 yards out) and deep (a 39-yarder over the top of the defense to tight end Greg Olsen(notes) after Newton quickly recognized the man coverage). Newton's most impressive throw came in the most desperate of situations.
On the final drive, as the Panthers marched for a potential game-tying field goal that missed, the team was forced into a fourth-and-15 situation. You might as well put your money on a hardway 8. Newton made it look like practice. He hit Brandon LaFell(notes) for a 44-yard gain on a play that was both nice design (LaFell was part of a stacked two-receiver alignment where he ran deep and the other receiver ran an intermediate route in an effort to get the defense to make a mistake) and better execution (Newton put the ball on the money when the defense actually reacted pretty well).
Afterward, Newton easily could have been pleased with himself. Instead, he was defiant, not only upset with the loss, but angry with any questions about veteran kicker Olindo Mare's(notes) miss on the second-to-last play that would have likely forced overtime. While there were some people who accused Newton of being an "actor" before the draft, his four-minute, 20-second postgame presser was a study of a man who seems driven to win. He was intense, defiant and, most important, understanding of the picture of a game.
"Anyone who thinks this game came down to the last possession is a fool," Newton said, his jaw tight as he chewed on every word and then referred to three consecutive three-and-out drives Carolina had in the second half. "Three-and-out is unacceptable, and if you expect to win games and you're going three-and-out and you call yourself a high-powered offense, that's not it."
When Newton talked about how "I hate losing" and how "you still have to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, 'Are you going to get the job done or what are you going to do?' " those phrases may have been cliché, but they resonated as true belief. For Newton, it's not enough to post great stats or look like the NFL's next big thing. He deeply wants to win. He has the presence of Michael Jordan, a guy who so fiercely wanted to win he would fight his own teammates.
In this situation, Newton fought to defend one.
"Like I say, put in that situation again, Olindo, it's not his fault," Newton said. "Yeah, he missed a field goal, but go back in the third quarter and look at the drives. We had our opportunities. I'll be damned if someone just sits up there and puts the pressure on one particular person where it was a collective loss, offensively, defensively and special teams."
With that and without even a hint of his trademark smile, Newton asked if that was it and then marched off.
Bolts' troubling trends
I'm not going to be so obtuse as to argue that San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner is directly responsible for Philip Rivers throwing two interceptions and inexplicably fumbling at the end of regulation during Monday night's overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. However, there is an overarching theme here with Turner and the Chargers, who continue to be underachievers from even before he became the head coach. For all the talent the Chargers have, they let details go unaddressed. Last year, it was bad special teams play. This year, Rivers is slumping. They overcome most of it enough to be a competitive team, but look well short of being a champion. With previous coach Marty Schottenheimer, it was his bad strategy combined with his overzealous emotional approach. With Turner, it's his inability to demand more of people. There is simply a lack of accountability with Turner, a guy who is great at calling plays but terrible at calling people out.
[ Related: Chargers QB Philip Rivers makes all-time blunder ]
Newton's passing nuance
Having talked at some length about Newton, one of the subtly impressive things that he does is make timely reads and get rid of the ball quickly in certain situations. This is a big change from some of the stuff he did at Auburn, where he was encouraged to let plays go for awhile so he could eventually use his athletic ability to overwhelm opponents when the defense made a mistake. In the long run, Newton's push to diagnose plays more quickly will serve him well in the NFL.
1. Green Bay Packers (7-0): Mike McCarthy vs. San Diego's Norv Turner next week is an interesting matchup of play-callers for those who appreciate such things.
2. San Francisco 49ers (6-1): The 49ers are good, but probably not this good. Then again, who is after the Packers?
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2): The next four games, starting with Baltimore on Sunday night, will largely decide the AFC North.
4. Baltimore Ravens (5-2): Ravens were severely on the ropes in the first half against a really mediocre Arizona team.
5. New England Patriots (5-2): Even with five sacks vs. Steelers, Patriots' defense still doesn't have enough of a pass rush to be consistent.
28. Denver Broncos (2-5): The early stages of the Tim Tebow experiment suggest the Broncos don't have a long-term answer at QB.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6): After a one-game reprieve, the Jaguars returned to their level of boring awfulness.
30. St. Louis Rams (1-6): Even a week ago, what would the parlay odds have been on a win over New Orleans and a Cards World Series victory?
31. Miami Dolphins (0-7): If the Dolphins don't win one of the next two against the Chiefs or Redskins, they have a serious chance to run the 0-16 table.
32. Indianapolis Colts (0-8): They still have two games left with Jacksonville and one with Carolina, so there's decent hope to avoid getting shut out.
• If the Dolphins let go of Tony Sparano before season's end, don't be surprised if assistant head coach/secondary Todd Bowles is named the interim. Bowles, who was interviewed by Dallas before Jason Garrett was elevated to head coach, is viewed as an up-and-coming assistant by many teams even though the Dolphins have struggled this season. Bowles is a former NFL defensive back who started on the Washington Redskins' Super Bowl XXII championship team under Joe Gibbs. Bowles would be a minority candidate for the Dolphins if he ultimately interviewed for the job, and it would be a good opportunity for Miami to make amends for their previous failures to take the Rooney Rule seriously, such as when the team conducted a sham interview with Art Shell before hiring Nick Saban.
• Another tidbit on the Dolphins: Expect possible general manager candidates to be very concerned if former Kansas City president (and close friend of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross) Carl Peterson is involved in any GM and/or coach search. There is increasing belief that if the Dolphins' season continues to tank that GM Jeff Ireland, who is currently close to Ross but is losing favor with every loss, will get pushed out, too. If Peterson then swoops in and the team hires a GM as well, at least two possible candidates said last week they'd want to know clearly what the parameters are as far as Peterson's involvement. "I like Carl a lot, but Carl is Carl. He may say he doesn't want to run the show, but I'll believe it when I see it," said one of the possible candidates, a personnel man from an NFC team. "There would have to be a really clear line in my mind before I even thought about doing that, or you're going to have all sorts of confusion. It's one thing to give the owner your opinion on how things are going. It's another to want influence day-to-day."
• I hate to criticize any athlete for having a little commercial success (if you can get the money, good for you), but isn't it a little telling that Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo has to have his name announced or spelled out in the Geico commercials for people to know who he is? Orakpo is a good player, but not exactly a Q-ratings darling. Frankly, the Geico Gecko has a higher profile.
• It's easy for people to start taking shots at New England coach Bill Belichick for some of his personnel moves of late (cutting cornerback Leigh Bodden two days before the Pittsburgh game, and the general lack of draft success the past four years). However, there is perhaps no coach in the history of the league who has earned more leeway to run an organization as he sees fit.
• In talking to two scouts this week, both agreed that Stanford's Andrew Luck is the leader in the clubhouse for the No. 1 overall pick. No shock there. The interesting part is that both also believe Landry Jones of Oklahoma and Matt Barkley of USC are good enough (or could become good enough) that teams won't feel so desperate to trade up for Luck. "Everybody is trying to get a quarterback, but you don't want to do it at the expense of being able to build the rest of the team," one of the scouts said. "Sometimes you have to make the deal, like what the [New York] Giants did with Eli [Manning]. I'm not sure that's the situation here."
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