There was a gleam in Chris Weinke's eye last weekend as he watched the opening games of the NFL season. The former pro quarterback, now the director of the IMG Madden Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla., couldn't help but feel like a proud papa as two of his prized pupils from the lockout -- Cam Newton and Randall Cobb -- commanded America's attention during their NFL debuts.
No rookies made a more immediate impact than this duo, who just happened to be training partners for roughly a month during the lockout, regularly playing catch, completing pass patterns and lifting weights together on the fields and facilities of the sprawling campus in Bradenton.
Newton, the first overall draft pick, threw for 422 yards, displaying poise and accuracy, and he nearly orchestrated a comeback in Arizona. Cobb, selected in the second round by the Green Bay Packers, bolstered the already deep Super Bowl champions with a 32-yard touchdown catch and a record-tying 108-yard kickoff return in the opening-night victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Weinke wasn't banking on such eye-popping immediate explosion from the rookies, but then again, their performances didn't exactly stun him, either.
"It was a lot of fun to watch for sure," Weinke said. "You never know what to expect, but knowing these two guys and knowing their work ethic and the type of work they put in down here, it's almost like you don't want to say you knew they were going to have some success right away, but with the things they did to prepare and to have this kind of success, we're all very proud."
Newton's first start may have been the single-biggest story in the league last week, putting up one of the greatest rookie passing outings ever, and doing it in his first opportunity. He never flinched, he looked cool and comfortable and in control of the offense, he avoided big mistakes and created a slew of big plays, single-handedly revitalizing receiver Steve Smith as a dominant vertical threat, while making plays with his feet as well. To do all of this amid the intense scrutiny and personal criticism Newton has faced going back to last year at Auburn was truly a statement.
Many will focus on the yardage -- and let's not forget about him accounting for all three of his team's touchdowns -- but while Newton fell just one yard shy of equaling Weinke's Carolina franchise record of 423 yards in a game, there were other parts of the performance that were even more impressive to the quarterback coach.
"The most impressive thing through my eyes was the fact that as a rookie starting his first NFL game, the way he stood in the pocket and delivered the ball with accuracy," Weinke said. "The numbers -- 422 yards -- for a rookie, are those impressive? Yes. Are most people surprised? Yes. But as a quarterback coach and a guy training these guys, I got more excited about the fact that they were bringing blitzes and overloads and some tricky things, and he stood in the pocket and delivered the ball with accuracy."
Newton went 24 of 37, and the one interception he threw wasn't terribly crippling. He passed every measure of the eye test -- to the point where some are already posing the question of whether he can do it again -- and surely some struggles and bad days are ahead. That's life for any rookie. And facing Dom Capers' complicated attacking defense this weekend will be a particularly staunch challenge. But Weinke doesn't believe Sunday's performance was a fluke, either.
Newton came to IMG after the combine, starting with an intensive week of prep work before his Pro Day. All of the knocks on him were heightened back then in February and March. He was too cocky (the "icon" comment, which seemed to be taken at least somewhat out of context). He was raw, needed better mechanics and footwork. He was inaccurate, sailing several short and intermediate passes too high during his combine work.
Over the course of their six weeks together, which included 90-120 minutes of classroom work and 90-120 minutes of on-field daily, Weinke, a former Heisman Trophy winner who played seven years in the NFL, helped Newton make one mechanical adjustment to help curb the high throws (he is no longer rocking his back shoulder as much and trying to over-throw, keeping his shoulders level instead). And Weinke found a fast learner in Newton as they combined to absorb and install the Panthers' playbook.
"From day one," Weinke said, "not ever having a chance to work with him prior to that, and listening to all the reports and what everybody was saying about him, I can only say this: He came in here focused and worked every single day. His mental capacity is much larger than anyone has ever given him credit for."
Weinke trained Newton alongside former NFL quarterback Ken Dorsey. Dorsey played for Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski both in college at the University of Miami and in the NFL at Cleveland, so he provided unique insight into the offensive philosophy and plays. And, during the brief period that the lockout was lifted, around the draft, Newton was issued a playbook -- it became an invaluable resource as the time at IMG became essentially a personal OTA period.
The volume and verbiage of Chudzinski's offense can be heavy for a veteran, much less a kid with only one year playing big-time college football. At first, Newton was more or less mimicking Dorsey and Weinke on the practice field, repeating plays they called out and just getting familiar with the concepts.
"It was key for him to be to able to verbalize a play," Weinke said. "I approached it like a practice or game call. We'd call the play, make him repeat it like he'd call it in the huddle, then go through all the cadence and motions and any shifts.
"And then we'd build to a point where we gave him coverages he had to read and make decisions based on that, incorporating footwork and all of those things with it. By the time he left here, he had a great understanding of the offense and his mechanics were sound and he was making great decisions."
"I think he was very well-prepared as far as what we were going to do offensively," Hurney said. "And I think we were fortunate that we had that brief period of time for him to come in and meet with us (right after being drafted) and get some of the ideas of the offensive system we were going to run. I think it's obvious that he did a lot of work with Chris Weinke down there, and he got a good foundation down there. And (Panthers quarterbacks coach) Mike Shula and Rob Chudzinski have done a tremendous job with him since he's been here."
Hurney and the Panthers' staff quickly found out all of the research they did on Newton was correct. Contrary to some misguided perceptions, he did have a more advanced sense of systems and schemes than he had been given credit for. He wasn't a me-first guy, but rather was all consumed with winning above all else. He wasn't going to be lax at practice or in the classroom.
"We thought he had a great handle on football concepts," Hurney said, "he had good vision of the field and he had the poise he has showed here in this brief period of time with us. What he showed in college is what he's showed here: He's got a very good feel for playing the quarterback position and anybody who did their work on him I think came away with the opinion that this was a quarterback who was also a very good athlete. That's what he's showed us, and he's always had a very good feel for the quarterback position."
Cobb, meanwhile, came into the NFL without the hype, fanfare or expectations, and joined what many already considered the best receiving group in the league. And he managed to upstage all of the veterans on the Thursday night kickoff, emerging as a force on special teams and downfield. As if the Packers needed another weapon?
Some knocked Cobb's size, and he wasn't a particularly sexy name in the draft coming out of Kentucky, but the Packers select players as well as anyone in the NFL. They may have found another gem here.
"I can say this, we've had a lot of guys come through here, and I can honestly say Randall is one of my favorite guys," Weinke said. "The guy brought an attitude and excitement to the practice field everyday that's hard to find.
"He's very focused and the guy is coachable and he wanted to learn and absorb information and his effort on daily basis, regardless of if he was sore or not -- and we put them through a grind -- he came everyday and wanted to get better. If I was starting a team, I would want that guy on my team. He's an explosive player, obviously, but I thought he really honed his skills while he was down here simply because he wanted to."
Both will be hard-pressed to duplicate their debut statistics, but then again, who knows? The work they put in during the spring is already paying dividends, and regardless of the outcome, you know Weinke will be watching closely.