CHARLOTTE, N.C. --- Cam Newton may or may not have a similar career as Peyton Manning, but one season into his NFL tenure, the Carolina Panthers' rookie has bettered the future Hall of Famer.
Newton put on a show that even Manning would admire in Saturday's 48-16 rout of the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He ran, he passed, he pitched, and he led the Panthers like the super-talented player he is, but also like a maturing leader.
Granted, it was pretty clear that Tampa's defense wasn't too invested in the outcome of the game, but they are still professionals, and Newton and the Panthers still had to complete the plays to make the demolition possible.
First, Newton passed Manning in total passing yards for a rookie when he found Brandon LaFell for a 7-yard pass deep in Tampa Bay territory on Carolina's opening possession, which ended with a touchdown.
That mark alone would have made this a special day for the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner. The record-setting season began when he passed for 422 yards in a loss at Arizona to open the season, followed by a 432-yard performance the next week home versus Green Bay, also a defeat.
Other than a few performances, Newton has usually put forth quality-to-excellent showings, culminating in a 171-yard, three-touchdown effort here on Christmas Eve.
For the season, Newton has 3,893 yards (and 20 touchdowns). Manning's mark of 3,739 yards stood for 13 years.
"Obviously, it's big. But it just goes to the people behind the scenes," the always-humble Newton said. "You've got Steve Smith I'm throwing it to. You've got Brandon LaFell, who's stepped up his game, an awesome line that has been protecting me throughout the season, and two awesome tight ends. They make my job easier."
Saturday was a literal stat-sheet stuffer for Newton. He left more than one present under the tree for Carolina fans, delivering a variety of gifts that maybe only he can among NFL signal callers.
Newton hooked up with LaFell for a 91-yard scoring strike in the second quarter, breaking the team-record of 89 yards set in 1995. On that play, Kerry Collins found Willie McGee versus Atlanta.
The development of the 6-foot-5, 246-pounder, however, was never more obvious than in a possession late in the third quarter that ultimately put the home team ahead, 34-10.
One play after taking a hit just above his left ribs when scrambling out of bounds, Newton found Jonathan Stewart for an 11-yard touchdown on a 4th-and-1 play. The hit still stung, but Newton hung in there.
Two plays earlier, Newton managed to gain a yard under a heavy pass rush, but for a second it appeared as if he was going to try to get rid of the ball, which in past games has at times had disastrous results. This time, he kept the ball and went down, keeping alive the possession.
"He's come a long way," offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "I think his stats might have been better, as far as yardage and stuff, earlier in the season, but I love the way he's playing now so much more than how he was playing earlier."
The variety in Newton's repertoire was on full display Saturday, and it included an option pitch to DeAngelo Williams for a 22-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. That defenses have to respect Newton on so many levels is why his rookie season, both statistically and theoretically, has been more impressive than Manning's was.
And to top it off, the rookie burst 49 yards for a score of his own just before the close of the third quarter. That run set yet another record; the longest ever run from scrimmage by a Panthers' quarterback.
The grind of an NFL season hasn't taken its toll at all on Newton. In fact, he's flourishing now more than at any time. And just think, he will soon have an entire offseason to get better, a thought that must make other NFC coaches a bit uneasy.