TAMPA, Fla. -- The much-anticipated Josh vs. Cam Show is definitely going to take place Sunday. Its only a question now of which Josh the Bucs will start against the Carolina Panthers and hotshot rookie quarterback Cam Newton.
Josh No. 1, as in starting quarterback Freeman, has been nursing a sore right shoulder ever since the botched sneak last Sunday on the final play of the game against Tennessee.
As a result, Josh No. 2, as in Johnson, has been taking the majority of the reps in practice this week, preparing for a possible start in a crucial contest against Carolina -- hoping to keep the Bucs from tumbling into the NFC South Division cellar.
Head coach Raheem Morris has indicated this week that it could well come down a game-time decision on which Josh to start. Freeman threw soft passes Friday in practice, putting his ailing shoulder to the test for the first time all week. That small step forward in his condition raises the possibility that he could still start, but for now Freeman can only play a waiting game.
The swift, elusive Johnson hasnt started a game since 2009, when he took over the job from Byron Leftwich. He accumulated four starts all told, completing 50.4 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Since then, hes been used only in spot duty, mostly to utilize his legs and not his arm. Last year, Johnson completed 14 of 16 passes for 111 yards and no TDs or picks, but picked up 39 yards on four rushes for a 9.8-yard carry. Its been more of the same this year: 2-for-7 for 14 yards passing, with five carries for 17 yards (3.4-yard average) on running plays.
The only thing certain, unless he slips in the shower or something similarly freakish, is that Newton will be guiding Carolinas offense. And thats something he has done with unexpected first-year savvy and success.
The NFLs overall No. 1 pick has added much-needed electricity to the Panthers game, already amassing 3,093 passing yards (239-for-392 for a 61 percent completion rate) with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. And he began the season with a pair of 400-plus-yard passing efforts, too, including 432 at Green Bay.
But the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has been just as big a factor on the ground, rushing 86 times for 464 yards (7.8-yard average) for an addition 10 -- count em 10 -- touchdowns.
Cam has done a nice job, Morris said this week. ...Thats the first thing you see: how confident hes playing and how well hes playing as far as getting the job done. Hes going out and throwing the ball down the field. You can see the big, strong arm come into play. Hes going through his progressions really nicely. And hes running the ball well...In the red zone, he really becomes dangerous because of his ability to run...
Hes still young and still learning. He makes some mistakes and throws some balls into coverage and gives you some opportunities. But for the most part, hes been going out really playing confident and like hes been in the league a long time.
Prior to the NFL Draft in April, Newton spent time working with former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden in Tampa. He credits that experience with some of his early success.
Absolutely, he said on a conference call. Any pre-draft work that I did was all for the good to focus on the season. And any help I got, working out with Gruden or in Bradenton (at IMG Academies), collectively was a help to me.
His biggest lesson after 11 weeks in the NFL?
Winning in this league is hard to come by, he said. And you have to value each possession that you have because you never know when that possession could be the ultimate reason why you ended up winning or losing.
In spite of the accolades around the league, Newton is hard on himself in assessing his own game so far.
I think Ive not played up to my standards, he said. Ive had yet had that game that I can be satisfied with this whole year. Im still striving to be that elite quarterback that I know I can be. And Im just striving every single practice to be that.
His chief goal for improvement is in consistency and the overall aspects of the game, whether its reads or decision making or making plays. Its all collective talent at the quarterback position. You cant just focus on one particular thing.
Newtons presence has had a major impact on star wide receiver Steve Smith, who had struggled last year with just 554 yards and two touchdowns after five straight standout seasons (with four in excess of 1,000 yards, and one just shy of it). But with Newton winging the ball, Steve has surged back to the top ranks of NFL wideouts, with 1,060 yards on 59 receptions and five TDs so far.
Im very proud, Newton said of his role in Smiths resurgence.
Steve does so much for this team that goes unnoticed as being that leader, and being that person everyone can talk to, he added. Because hes been in this league for a long time and so many people have gone up to him and asked questions that can help them on and off the field.
But nobody is helping the Panthers on the field this season more than Newton. He brings the Panthers to town fresh off a 27-19 victory at Indianapolis, raising the teams record to 3-8 -- within a game now of the reeling 4-7 Bucs, losers of five straight. Tampa Bay is suddenly in danger of tumbling into last place with a loss, and things wont be any easier if its own franchise quarterback cant play.