Compared to other quarterbacks who have started from Day 1, and particularly the ones taken first overall, the expectations for Cam Newton were quite low. Newton was considered to be a long-term project and only won the Panthers’ starting job because there was no real competition. Throw in that the former Auburn star didn’t have an offseason to work with his new team and the growing pains were supposed to flare up immediately.

But Newton was, relatively speaking, spectacular in his first professional start this afternoon in Arizona. He was 24-for-37 with a record-breaking 422 yards, two touchdowns and only one interception (the team’s only turnover) in a tough loss.

It’s easy to build an argument to defend Newton (the lack of practice, the fact that the fantastic performance came on the road) and to downplay the effort (the Cardinals are pretty bad, the Panthers still lost, and Newton has an underrated support system with a stellar offensive line and running game). But the numbers speak for themselves. No quarterback has ever eclipsed 400 yards in his first career start.

I’m very excited to see what Newton will be able to do as he continues to get comfortable and master the playbook in the coming weeks, especially if Steve Smith can stay on the field.

There’s also a good chance he’ll use his legs more, but the Panthers would be smart to make sure they keep forcing Newton to go through his progressions. He was fairly disciplined on Sunday, but there’s no telling what might happen if he keeps gaining swagger.

A few other notes from the late slate of games:

I love Washington’s defense. Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo are going to be one hell of a duo. They kept the Giants’ offense in check all day and made big plays when needed. The Giants converted just one third down all day. Washington has clearly become a better team than New York — the ‘Skins are getting better on both sides of the ball, while the Giants took some serious hits in the offseason and have been killed by injuries. I’ve said time and again that as long as they can get decent quarterback play, they’ll be a good team. Rex Grossman took care of business Sunday, and Washington easily disposed of a division rival.

The Chargers dodged another bullet. A retooled special teams unit led by new coach Rich Bicaccia was supposed to allow them to have a better start to this season. See, a bad start and poor special teams play did San Diego in last year (and bad starts have been a problem for several years). Chargers fans must have had a sick feeling in their stomachs when their team allowed a 103-yard kickoff return touchdown to start the season Sunday against Minnesota. The Bolts trailed a bad Vikings team 17-7 at halftime, and it looked like it was going to be another San Diego September screw-up. But they stepped it up with 17 unanswered points in the second half to survive. Maybe the Percy Harvin return was a required shock to the system.

Tough to get a read on 49ers-Seahawks. Ted Ginn’s two return touchdowns were essentially the difference in a 33-17 49ers victory, but both teams were otherwise quite unspectacular. Ginn won’t be there to make big plays every week (never thought I’d write that) and his return scores sort of distort the retrospective look we give the game. So I’m not overreacting to a 33-point effort from the Niners. Alex Smith will eventually hit a wall and I’m not thrilled with Frank Gore, while the Seahawks will continue to have a lot of trouble moving the chains. Both of these teams are quite awful.

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