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Cam Newton looks to Rodgers, Brady and Brees in quest to be best

Panthers quarterback Cam Newtis third NFL with 1012 passing yards. | AP

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is third in the NFL with 1,012 passing yards. | AP

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Updated: November 15, 2011 9:31AM

Rookie Cam Newton was the assumed starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers since early in the preseason, but not because anybody thought he’d throw for 1,012 yards in his first three NFL games.

In fact, when the Panthers played the Cincinnati Bengals in the third preseason game Aug. 25, Newton was the least impressive quarterback on the field — behind Bengals rookie Andy Dalton, his backup Bruce Gradkowski and Panthers backup Jimmy Clausen.

Newton completed 6 of 19 passes for 75 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions that night. His passer rating was 44.8. He rushed for 49 yards on four carries, including a 16-yard touchdown. But at that point, Newton’s destiny as the starter was based more on the hope that if he took his lumps early, he might throw for 400 yards or more in back-to-back games someday.

‘‘He’s going to grow as a starter, and we’re going to grow as a football team,’’ coach Ron Rivera said.

Even after being named the Panthers’ starter, Newton had more skeptics than believers. ‘‘I’m not a Newton fan. I didn’t like him in college,’’ Hall of Fame quarterback and four-time Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw said on Fox’s pregame show on opening weekend. He added that rookies Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert ‘‘are far ahead of Newton as far as being an NFL quarterback.’’

Newton caught up in a hurry. On his eighth play from scrimmage, facing third-and-seven on his team’s 23-yard line, Newton changed the play at the line of scrimmage, took a shotgun snap, saw a cornerback blitzing and fired a pass to Steve Smith along the left sideline for a 77-yard touchdown.

He was on his way to 422 yards, a record for a rookie in his first NFL start. Though the Panthers lost 28-21, mea culpas were coming in from around the globe. You actually could quantify Newton’s breakthrough: According to Yahoo! Sports, Newton was added to more than 75,000 of their fantasy teams in the 24 hours after the opening game.

‘‘He was everything that everybody didn’t expect him to be,’’ Smith said.

The next week against the Green Bay Packers, Newton threw for 432 yards and a touchdown, but he was intercepted three times in a 30-23 loss. He was held to 158 yards and a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars in a rain-soaked game last week. But he threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen with 4:20 to play for a 16-10 victory.

Newton still has a long way to go. His 85.1 passer rating is 18th in the NFL — one spot ahead of the Bears’ Jay Cutler (82.4). But already the 6-5, 248-pounder has shown he won’t rely on his size and mobility to succeed. He wants to develop the intangibles that make Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees the best quarterbacks in football. He’s like a pitcher who can throw 100 mph but knows the changeup can be his best weapon.

‘‘The way he’s maintained his composure and poise in the pocket is tremendous,’’ Rivera said. ‘‘We always felt he’d be able to handle pressure situations. But as well as he’s done, that’s the thing that gets us — he’s a tremendous worker. He does the extra things we’ve asked. He comes in on Monday and watches tape and then comes in on Tuesday on his day off and visits with the coaches. He’s a rookie who really wants to be good.’’

Newton has been dogged by character issues from his freshman year at Florida through last season at Auburn. But it hasn’t been enough to trump his immense talent and knack for winning. In his only two seasons in college, he was 21-1, winning national championships at Blinn (Texas) junior college and Auburn.

‘‘I think success comes if you yearn to be good,’’ Newton said. ‘‘Do you want to be average? Do you want to be good? Or do you want to be great? I think that’s what separates the Tom Bradys and Aaron Rodgers from other quarterbacks in this league.

‘‘There’s [always] something bigger and better you want. You can’t get complacent and say, ‘I’m done,’ and keep riding that boat until it wears off. The great ones are on to the next thing that can get those guys remembered.’’

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