O’Connor: Cam Newton gives Andrew Luck a lesson in resourcefulness

O’Connor: Cam Newton gives Andrew Luck a lesson in resourcefulness
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In a different life, Cam Newton beat out Andrew Luck for the Heisman, a fact that did not disabuse NFL scouts of the notion that Luck was destined to go down as the superior pro.

The Carolina Panthers would have selected Luck, not Newton, with the first pick of the 2011 draft, if only the Stanford quarterback didn’t decide he wanted another year in the classroom and another shot at a Heisman he would lose on the rebound to Robert Griffin III. Luck was supposed to be the next Peyton Manning (another guy who didn’t win the Heisman, by the way), and the Indianapolis Colts decided to fire Manning to clear the kid a spot.

Trading old for young made perfect business sense, of course, and Luck ripped off three consecutive 11-5 seasons in a lousy division and delivered a few playoff victories to boot. But suddenly in Year 4, Luck looks like a lost rookie searching on his hands and knees for a clue on how to lead an NFL team. It just so happened that in Monday night’s breathless 29-26 victory in overtime, Newton turned a floodlight on the conspicuous holes in Luck’s game.

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This was the first time the back-to-back No. 1 picks squared off, and under a steady rain neither stepped onto the Bank of American Stadium field surrounded by high-powered difference-makers. The Panthers were 6-0 because they have a great defense and a dynamic quarterback who compensates for what he doesn’t have on his side of the ball. The Colts were 3-4 because they don’t have a great defense or a quarterback whose improvisational skill inspires his team and, ahem, deflates his opponents.

For the first 49 minutes and change Monday night, that narrative remained firmly in place. Newton had led the Panthers to a 23-6 lead by throwing, scrambling and taking off on mad dashes when necessary, advancing the ball despite the so-so numbers in the box score.

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Luck? By the time he touched the ball with 10:44 to play in regulation, he’d completed five passes for 40 yards, thrown two of his three interceptions and run twice for 6 yards. Given how the Colts played when their franchise player was injured and out, Luck wasn’t just the second-best quarterback on the field; he was the second-best quarterback on his own roster.

But Chuck Pagano’s decision not to turn to 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck was suddenly honored by a revived Luck, who helped the Colts rip off 20 unanswered points, including the first three of overtime, by deciding to follow Newton’s lead. Out of sheer desperation, Luck started using his legs to buy time outside the pocket and gain critical yards. “I think the defense just spread out a little more,” the Colts quarterback explained, “and I stepped up and found some lanes.”

On the other side of the field, this much was clear: The Panthers didn’t care for this version of Luck. They much preferred it when he remained locked inside the pocket and let go of passes that made Lucas Duda’s throw to the plate in Game 5 on Sunday night look right on the money.

“He’s an athlete,” said Luke Kuechly, the all-world linebacker who claimed Luck’s third interception, the one that set up the winning field goal and left the Panthers as the NFC’s only unbeaten team. “I don’t know if people remember that or not. But he’s a great athlete. He can run. He’s big; he’s not afraid of contact. He’s like a tight end when he’s getting the ball. He runs, he’s fast, he’s not afraid to stiff-arm, and that causes problems for you.”

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Kuechly sounded as if he was reading from a scouting report on his own quarterback. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Newton can run the 40 in 4.58 seconds and make the kind of absurd pirouette he performed on an 11-yard gain punctuated by his high jump over a defensive back. No, Andrew Luck can’t make that play.

But at 6-4, 240, Luck can run a 4.67 40 and get more accomplished with his legs than most NFL quarterbacks. He was an opportunistic and explosive runner at Stanford in his second year as a starter before becoming a more cautious one in his third and final year. Though he is an exceptional athlete, Luck has been less willing than Newton at this level to use his athleticism as a weapon to win games.

“And when Cam takes off,” Panthers receiver Jerricho Cotchery said, “it takes a lot out of the defense. … It’s a demoralizing thing.”

Newton actually didn’t run as much as Luck did late in the game, but he’d already left his mark. As a passer, Newton matched Luck in touchdowns (two), accumulated more yardage (248 to 231) on a dozen fewer attempts and surrendered two fewer interceptions. Newton also threw what should’ve been the winning 56-yard scoring pass in overtime before Ted Ginn Jr. blew the gimme. Greg Olsen aside, it was another reminder of Carolina’s dearth of big league playmakers with Kelvin Benjamin gone.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Newton said of Carolina’s 11th consecutive regular-season victory. “We know that. We know we have to be better, but at the end of the day we are one of the lucky few to be 7-0.”

Newton would talk about his fearless approach, his willingness to absorb hits while figuring out different ways to win. “This is a collision sport,” he said.

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Luck wouldn’t confirm or deny reports that he’d played this season with fractured ribs (the league is investigating whether the Deflategate whistleblowers need a nondisclosure whistle to be blown on them), and it really didn’t matter. If you suit up to play in the NFL, your physical state is no longer relevant.

Luck couldn’t use the rain as an excuse for how he played, not when his predecessor Manning won his Super Bowl in the rain and not when the ultimate Colts icon, Johnny U., would’ve played through a monsoon without complaint. In fact, Luck couldn’t use his offensive line as an excuse, either.

He’s the one who was supposed to take over the league from Tom Brady and Manning and the rest. He’s the one who was supposed to throw for 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards this year.

He’s the one who now has a 1-5 record. He’s the one who now has 12 interceptions against 13 touchdowns.

“It’s my problem,” Luck said of the turnovers, “and it is hurting the team. And I’ve got to fix it or else it’s tough to win.”

As it turned out Monday night, Newton actually handed Luck a reliable manual on how to fix it. The undermanned Panthers are the undefeated Panthers in large part because their quarterback is doing whatever it takes to score one more point than the bad guys. Remember, Newton beat Luck to the Heisman and beat him again in their first NFL meeting for a reason. He’s the more versatile and resourceful football player right now, with no guarantee that’s ever going to change.