There were few of the big passing plays he made look so easy in his first two games, even fewer scoring chances, and more than enough reasons to get frustrated.
Instead, the No. 1 overall draft pick by Carolina ignored it all and led the clutch drive that secured his first NFL victory, 16-10 over Jacksonville.
Newton found Greg Olsen over the middle for a 16-yard touchdown with 4:20 left to help the Panthers beat the Jaguars, giving coach Ron Rivera his first victory on the Carolina sideline.
Newton didn’t come close to matching those 400-yard throwing days from each of his first two games, finishing 18 for 34 for 158 yards against the Jaguars and their own highly drafted rookie quarterback, Blaine Gabbert. It didn’t matter, though, considering he had just earned his first victory since leading Auburn past Oregon in last season’s BCS championship game.
“It wasn’t a pretty win,” Newton said, “but the last part counts, right?”
Newton didn’t even crack the 100-yard passing mark until the final period. At least some blame went to the heavy rain that arrived in the second quarter, turning the field into a slick, puddle-filled mess, sending players hydroplaning and kicking up walls of water as they slid to the turf on tackles.
But after the rain let up in the third period, Newton directed a field-goal drive late in the period. Then he completed all three of his passes for 47 yards on the decisive drive. On his last throw, he went over the middle to Olsen, who broke free of a tackle by Daryl Smith and sprinted to the left side for the go-ahead touchdown.
Newton also found Olsen for the 2-point conversion that erased the 10-5 halftime deficit.
Olsen said Newton’s demeanor never changed in the huddle.
“That’s what makes him a winner and what makes him how successful he’s been,” Olsen said. “The circumstances we were in were tough. That’s not an excuse. If you ask Jacksonville, they would say the same thing.”
Gabbert, the 10th pick of the draft, threw for 139 yards in his starting debut. That included a 36-yard touchdown pass to Mike Thomas on the final play of the first half, leading to a steady series of boos from the drenched home fans who hadn’t already fled to the safety of the concourse.
“It was a good start for him, considering it was a hurricane,” said Maurice Jones-Drew, who rushed for 122 yards. “He’s going to be a good quarterback, and we’ve got to continue to grow with him.”
Gabbert even had a chance to snatch the victory from Newton in the final minute, driving the Jaguars way to the Carolina 36-yard line in the final seconds. But linebacker Thomas Williams batted away Gabbert’s final pass for Jason Hill as the clock expired.
Gabbert completed 12 of 21 passes and had three fumbled snaps — the Jaguars recovered each one — to go with an interception.
“We got the right look most of the day,” Gabbert said. “We knew what they were going to do. We made the right calls, had the correct blocking. We just failed to execute.”
The Panthers seriously considered taking Gabbert with the top pick before deciding on the Heisman Trophy winner out of Auburn. The decision has paid off so far, with Newton energizing the Charlotte area while giving the franchise the type of exciting player it has never really had.
“At times, the defense wasn’t giving me the looks that we were wanting,” Newton said. “That’s one where you have to make up your decision in your mind as a quarterback: Are you going to force it to get a completion or are you just going to check it down to your backs? … Today was a prime example of you just managing the game and just getting it to your backs and keeping the chains going.”
Newton directed just one first-half scoring drive that ended with a field goal. But he avoided any turnovers after throwing three interceptions against Green Bay last week.
“He settled in and made some good decisions,” Rivera said. “If he continues to do that, it gives us a chance to win. If we give ourselves a chance to win, I think we will win a few more.”
Things didn’t start out well for Gabbert. A penalty wiped out a chain-moving completion on his first throw and he ended up being tripped up in the end zone for a safety. His second drive ended with a third-down sack.
He got the Jaguars on the board by directing a field goal drive, aided by the Panthers jumping offside on a punt to give Jacksonville a first down after what was going to be a three-and-out. He also led the stunning scoring drive right before half, with Thomas catching a long pass from Gabbert and leaping across the goal line through the heavy rain as time expired for the 10-5 lead.
Notes: Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble left the game in the second quarter with an unspecified injury. He did not return. … Jacksonville running back Montell Owens left the game with a knee injury on a third-quarter kickoff return. … Jacksonville played without defensive ends Aaron Kampman (knee) and Matt Roth (neck), and receiver Kassim Osgood (hamstring). … Carolina S Charles Godfrey (concussion) was also inactive.