The Carolina Panthers submitted to their future this year by casting Cam Newton in the starting role at quarterback despite having highly-touted Jimmy Clausen already on the team. And to date, Newton has had success in terms of numbers. While the Panthers (2-5) struggle to win games, they have been competitive, and Newton ranks 2nd behind Aaron Rodgers in terms of scoring (rush and pass TDs). Carolina ranks 5th in total yards and passing, 8th in rushing.
This exciting brand of football has rejuvenated Steve Smith's career. Smith is averaging 21.0 yards per catch, has 39 catches on the season, and is on pace for nearly 1,900 receiving yards. Meanwhile, talented running backs James Stewart and DeAngelo Williams have a combined 615 yards and three TDs. Of course, Newton's seven rushing TDs have taken a bite out of the red-zone efforts of the duo, but Newton's 266 yards rushing are also enough to create a very balanced attack. Carolina has a strong offense.
But with the rookie's efforts also comes rookie pains. Stewart has more interceptions that passing touchdowns, and has been sacked frequently at crucial times. And while Smith's season has been phenomenal, the other receivers are not doing much. Legedu Naanee and Brandon LaFell are barely averaging two catches a game. Tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey are both called on more frequently. The Panthers -2 turnover ratio has cost them dearly in the close losses that they have had.
But no one is complaining in Carolina. The Panthers only have Clausen and Derek Anderson to call on, and Clausen is every bit as inexperienced as Newton, and Anderson, while a veteran in comparison, is third-string for a reason. No, Carolina has committed to the growth of Newton and the verdict appears to be that they chose wisely.
Minnesota did not have as much confidence in Christian Ponder to start the season. And while Donovan McNabb is a shell of his former self, he still presented as a better option than turning to a rookie to turn improve on a disappointing 2010 season. But then the Vikings weekly self-destructed in the second half of the first four or five games and suddenly their season's future was no better than that of Carolina. Suddenly, McNabb looked old and soft-armed. His mobility was questioned. And the crowds turned on him.
To be fair, the poor start was far from his fault alone. In repeated games McNabb seemed to find short receivers only to have balls dropped. The interceptions that turned games were deflections off of strong pass rush or receivers' hands. Collapsing pockets are hard to stand in, and McNabb seemed to be taking the same beating that old Brett Favre had suffered last year. Not to say McNabb was good, but one could easily point to offensive line, defensive backfield, even coaching decisions to find equal fault.
So Minnesota turns to Ponder. they unveiled him with a long pass on his first play to Michael Jenkins vs. the Packers. And while Ponder completed only about forty percent of his passes, he looked good maneuvering in and out of the pocket. His passes appeared mostly crisp with an ability to stretch a defense. Ponder's efforts rekindled Vikings' fans spirits as they begin the grieving process of not making the playoffs for a second straight year. But a loss is a loss, and the purist fan walked away no happier after losing at home to Green Bay. Hopeful, but not happy.
It turns out that Ponder and Newton both benefited from training during the holdout with Chris Weinke, a local ex-NFL quarterback, who has developed a successful training program for quarterbacks. The two worked out with their team's playbooks and got a solid jump on the 2011 season. Newton's early success and Ponder's start suggest more quarterbacks will look to Weinke for help in the future.
And so this game presents as rookie vs. rookie, two teams who have made their future the present. And while both need serious help on defense, each has played competitively throughout the season. The 1-6 Vikings are hopeful that Ponder's efforts will overcome the bad PR created by Chris Cook's domestic troubles, and a state government that appears to not want to help them stay in Minnesota. A down economy is not the time to ask for money, even if it means jobs and taxable income. Investment is frowned upon even when it is the best answer. And bad PR doesn't help.
But all that is forgotten on Sunday. What will certainly be remembered is the play of Cam Newton. Spurned by media before the 2011 draft, Newton has shown that there is a bias toward big running quarterbacks from simple offenses in college, even if they have all the tools of their passing-type counterparts. And Carolina appears to have benefited from that stinking thinking. Carolina is on their way up with the rookie and loving their good fortune in the draft.
Carolina, thanks to Newton, has learned what goes down can come up with the proper drafting of players. Let's hope Minnesota learns this lesson before 2012. With Ponder starting it appears they might.