ATLANTA — Cam Newton cheered on the Atlanta Falcons during their only Super Bowl season. He always joined right in for the team’s trademark dance.
“The Dirty Bird era,” Newton recalled, a tinge of nostalgia in his voice. “On Monday, every kid would come to school doing the Dirty Bird. There’s a lot of history with me loving the Falcons.”
Now, he’s trying to beat them.
Newton will lead the Carolina Panthers into the Georgia Dome on Sunday, a homecoming for the Heisman Trophy winner who’s off to a blistering start as an NFL rookie.
The native of College Park, which is south of downtown Atlanta, threw for more than 400 yards in his first two games, and tacked on a 374-yard performance at Chicago two weeks ago. Only three quarterbacks have thrown for more yards this season, and it’s not a bad group — Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, who’ve got five Super Bowl rings between them.
“He’s their leader,” Falcons safety James Sanders of Newton. “He’s making plays for them. He’s running that offense and leading them like a 10-year veteran. I’m sure he’s learning along the way, but he definitely doesn’t look like a rookie out there.”
Of course, Newton is more than just a passer, as he showed during one brilliant college season at Auburn. He’s also become Carolina’s primary goal-line weapon, accounting for five of the team’s six rushing touchdowns. Throw in seven TD passes, and he’s had a hand (or legs) in all but one of the team’s 13 trips to the end zone.
To demonstrate how much of a boost he’s been to a team that was downright feeble a year ago, the Newton-led Panthers are three TDs away from their total for all of 2010.
“He’s gotten off to a great start,” said Newton’s Atlanta counterpart, Matt Ryan. “I think everybody is surprised when a rookie comes in and performs the way he has. But he’s a talented guy.”
After running the spread in college, Newton figured to face a steep learning curve in a pro-style offense — especially when the lockout wiped out the offseason program, usually the time when a rookie will get familiar with the playbook and begin to mesh with his new teammates.
Even with a short training camp and four preseason games, Newton took over like this has been his team for years.
“I thought he was talented in college. He made some incredible plays at Auburn,” Ryan said. “But to have a short preparation time just adds to the difficulty. So credit to him. He’s done a tremendous job since he’s come in.”
The only thing missing from Newton’s resume is a few more wins. Carolina (1-4) has been in every game, its losses coming by a combined 18 points.
Well, the team he grew up rooting for as a kid would like to keep that trend going for at least another win. The Falcons need a win, too, in the worst way. Projected as a Super Bowl contender coming off a 13-win season and NFC South championship, Atlanta (2-3) has been one of the major disappointments in the early going this season. A supposedly high-powered offense has looked out of sync,and the defense hasn’t been playing well enough to bail the team out.
Last week’s loss to defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay was especially frustrating. The Falcons raced to a 14-0 lead on their first two drives, then managed nine first downs and 106 yards the rest of the way, continually shooting themselves in the foot with silly penalties and untimely mistakes.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “We can’t keep winning one game, losing one game, winning one, then losing one. We need to get off that. We need to start being consistent and put together a string of wins, start being the team that we can be.”
Playing from behind much of the season, the Falcons haven’t been able to establish their trademark running game. Michael Turner has gone three straight weeks without reaching 100 yards, and Ryan is throwing a lot more than the coaching staff would prefer, tied for second in the league with an average of 39.2 passing attempts per game.
The Panthers look like an inviting target for Atlanta to turn things around. They’re 27th in the league against the run (135.2 yards) and a rash of injuries on defense makes them appear even more vulnerable.
“They’re giving up a lot of yards rushing,” Falcons receiver Roddy White said. “We’ve got to be able to run the ball, play-action pass, do things like that.”
Besides, Atlanta will be short-handed in the passing game. Rookie Julio Jones, who has 25 catches for 358 yards, is out because of a hamstring injury. Harry Douglas will take his place, a speedy player but not nearly the target that Jones usually provides as a complement to White.
“We’d like to be a little bit better balanced,” said Ryan, who ranks 21st in the league in passing efficiency. “But we’ve put ourselves in some tough positions. We haven’t been able to remain balanced because of mistakes that have kind of backed us up into a corner. I think it comes down, point blank, that we need to play more consistent. If we do that in the run game and the pass game, that will add up to a little bit of balance.”
The Falcons certainly aren’t taking this one for granted. Facing a division rival they dominated a year ago, Atlanta knows it has taken a step backward, while the Panthers have taken a major leap forward. The record doesn’t show it yet, but Carolina has all the signs of a team on the move — and moving fast.
The Panthers are tied with New England for the most big plays, both teams going for at least 20 yards on 33 snaps. The Falcons, by comparison, have only 16 plays that the coaches like to call “explosive.”
“When you look at the film, they’re just making little mental mistakes, a turnover here, a turnover there,” White said. “That’s why they’re not winning. But they’re a real dangerous team. They’re really explosive.”
Newton looks forward to returning home, but his main focus is on getting a second victory.
Close just isn’t cutting it.
“I’ve done all right,” he said. “But I can’t hide the fact that each and every game, we’ve had a chance to win.”