Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s 2011 decision to remain at Stanford for his senior year was easy for him.
And the timing simplified the Carolina Panthers’ decision for the NFL draft’s No. 1 pick – which eventually would become Auburn’s Cam Newton.
With the two set to meet for the first time, Monday night at Bank of America Stadium, neither was ready to entertain what-ifs Wednesday. But their futures were shaped by Luck’s announcement on Jan. 6, 2011, that he would remain with the Cardinal.
That timing meant Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera never considered Luck at all. He wasn’t hired until five days later, and although regional scouts for the Panthers had watched Luck, a source said the team never fully scouted him because his decision came so early.
Rivera’s first order of business still was finding a quarterback. It was clear Jimmy Clausen, coming off a 2-14 rookie season that revealed the flaws in his game, wasn’t the answer. The Panthers were left evaluating the quarterbacks first in a draft so deep that nine of the first 11 selections have gone on to Pro Bowls.
Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, was the first quarterback Rivera watched with then-general manager Marty Hurney.
“I was thinking this is going to be the guy,” Rivera said. “But there was a good list of other guys. So every time we watched the other guys, (Newton) was the automatic comparison all the way through.”
The Panthers watched Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker, but they remained focused on Newton because of his arm, ability to run with the ball and his poise in the pocket.
The Panthers studied Newton for months, and after a final meeting with him and his family the week before the draft, Rivera and Hurney were convinced Newton was their guy.
But would the Panthers have taken Luck over Newton? In all likelihood, yes. Luck was a more polished product. But it’s an impossible hypothetical because of Luck’s quick decision.
“I always sort of knew I was going to stay in school for four years,” Luck told reporters during a conference call Wednesday. “Finishing my education was also important to me and I needed to stay an extra year to get that done. I felt I needed to learn and grow as a football player and that college would still give me that opportunity.
“I don’t know if anything’s ever 100 percent set. I was pretty sure about it. I remember talking to my parents about it and it was not a stressful decision. I think in my mind I was always going to stay in school for four years and had unfinished business at the amateur level.”
The Panthers picked Newton, knowing he would be more of a project. He was coming off the best season a college quarterback had ever had, but much of his success came from simply being bigger and better than his competition. His one season of major college football experience would only do so much in the NFL.
The others? Locker is retired, Ponder is looking for work and Gabbert is the San Francisco 49ers’ backup.
“It’s been a long process,” Rivera said Wednesday. Newton “is playing the way we hoped and envisioned.”
Newton’s passing statistics regularly have put him in the middle of the quarterback pack, but they don’t account for the plays he makes with his feet. He has made the Pro Bowl twice, produced some marquee victories and led the Panthers to back-to-back playoff berths for the first time.
Entering Monday’s game against Luck’s Colts (3-4), Newton has Carolina at 6-0 – the best start in franchise history. He is being mentioned as an early most valuable player candidate.
This season Luck, hailed as one of the league’s brightest stars since entering the NFL in 2012, has looked like anything but the future Hall of Famer he once was considered. He is 1-4 as a starter with 11 touchdown passes to nine interceptions and has the lowest quarterback rating (76.2) of his career.
“Simply put, we haven’t, and I haven’t, played very good football, winning football,” Luck said. “Turnovers and some negative plays and penalties. We haven’t done what we needed to do to win consistently. That being said we’re sitting at 3-4 with a great opportunity to play a great team on Monday night.”
But there is a question that has lingered in Charlotte: Did Luck stay in school to avoid being on the other sideline Monday night?
“Absolutely not,” he said Wednesday. “Absolutely not. And I hope people don’t think that.”
The Panthers are where Rivera and Hurney hoped they would go when they drafted Newton. They knew he’d be dynamic and thought he eventually would become a franchise quarterback. But there was something Rivera didn’t realize about Newton: How hard he takes losing.
“That’s the one thing I never got,” Rivera said. “He had won in everything he did. And it was a little bit of an awakening to learn how hard he takes it. But it’s also good because you’d rather have a guy do it that way.”
So far this season, they haven’t had to worry about that.