September 11, 2011
On Sept. 6, 1998, the Indianapolis Colts welcomed the Miami Dolphins to what was then the RCA Dome to see their new quarterback, first overall pick Peyton Manning(notes). At the end of the game, Manning had thrown 21 completions in 37 attempts for 302 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.
It wasn't the most auspicious debut, but Manning threw for more than 300 yards in his first pro game, something no other rookie quarterback had done before. The Colts lost the game — they would win just three that season — but it was certainly a sign of things to come. And as we now know, Manning played in every game from then to now as Sunday marked the end of his 208-consecutive-games-started streak.
There was a first-game passing-yardage record that exceeded Manning's, but it comes with a pretty heavy asterisk. Otto Graham of the 1950 Cleveland Browns threw for 346 yards in his NFL debut against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 16 of that year, but he spent the four previous seasons in the All-America Football Conference, which merged three teams (Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and an earlier version of the Baltimore Colts) with the NFL before the 1950 season.
Surprisingly, Sunday also marked the end of whichever yardage record you care to recognize. Another first overall pick, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, broke that mark going away by passing for 422 yards. Not only did Newton obliterate Manning's record for the first game of any rookie career, he did it on the road (versus the Arizona Cardinals) and with a truncated preseason due to the lockout. Unfortunately for Newton, the Panthers fell short, 28-21, but that's not what will be remembered about this game.
Newton's yardage total actually tied him for the most passing yards any rookie has thrown in any first-year performance, a mark that was previously held by Detroit's Matthew Stafford(notes) in Week 10 of his 2009 season. Stafford threw for his 422 yards against the Cleveland Browns in a 38-37 win. Of course, Stafford has an edge over anyone else in this discussion — he did his thing against the Browns with a shoulder injury sustained late in the game.
Still, that takes nothing away from what Newton did against the Cardinals. He went 24 of 37, threw for two touchdowns and just one interception, and hit eight different receivers. Probably the most impressive pass play of the day for the Panthers was a 77-yard touchdown to Steve Smith in the first quarter.
Newton hit Smith again in the second quarter, and ran for a third touchdown late in the third quarter. He had the Panthers driving to tie the game with time running out, but he hit running back Mike Goodson(notes) on a short pass, and linebacker Paris Lenon(notes) stopped Goodson short.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Newton's performance is that many of the throws that bedeviled him at Auburn, and through the scouting combine and his pro day, were no problem for him Sunday. The quick outs that used to be an adventure at best were just fine, and he's so much better at the timing throws that are a crucial part of the NFL's lexicon.
The Cardinals don't present the league's biggest challenge from a pass defense perspective, and Newton will struggle as every rookie quarterback does. Still, with his rocket arm, ability to progress and ridiculous mobility, Cam Newton looks to be a nightmare for opponents on a more consistent basis than most people expected.
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