It took Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a while to knock the rust off, but he ended his night with some momentum and a couple of scoring drives.
And he came through his exhibition debut without aggravating his surgically repaired left ankle, so call it a success.
Newton and the first-team offense shook off a rocky start to guide the Panthers to a halftime lead Sunday against Kansas City at Bank of America Stadium. Newton was on the sideline in street clothes during the second half to watch Carolina go on to a 28-16 win.
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Newton, in his first game since offseason ankle surgery, led two touchdown drives during the second quarter to put the Panthers ahead 14-6 at the half.
Newton said his ankle hurt a little at times, but overall he was pleased to put “the throttle all the way down” without experiencing any setbacks.
“It felt good to get out there and get some time in the huddle,” Newton said. “We have to go back to work and get better.”
Running back Jonathan Stewart capped each drive with touchdowns runs of 2 and 3 yards, respectively. Stewart, who missed half of the past two seasons with injuries, hasn’t scored twice during a regular-season game since a win against Atlanta on Nov. 15, 2009.
“It felt good. It’s been a while since I’ve touched the end zone,” he said. “It’s preseason, so it’s good to get my feet wet and get back in the groove of things.”
Newton, who had surgery in March to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle, was held out of the exhibition opener against Buffalo. Coach Ron Rivera said the plan was to play Newton at least the first quarter and possibly longer if the offensive line protected him.
The pass-blocking was solid for the most part, and Newton played most of the first half before giving way to backup Derek Anderson.
Newton was sacked twice for a loss of 19 yards, although the second was his fault after failing to throw the ball away.
Newton played five series, completing four of nine passes for 65 yards. He had no touchdowns or interceptions, although he was nearly picked off by linebacker Derrick Johnson when he telegraphed a slant pass to Jason Avant.
Newton was off the mark early. The Panthers went three-and-out on their first three series as Newton overthrew a couple of open receivers, including rookie Kelvin Benjamin on a deep route.
But Newton developed a rhythm during his final two series against the Chiefs’ first-team defense. During the second scoring drive, Newton hit Benjamin and Avant for long gains to set up Stewart’s second score.
Avant, part of a completely new receiving corps, did a nice job creating separation on a 25-yard catch to the Kansas City 7.
“We had a slow start tonight, which is unacceptable,” Newton said. “We have to stay on schedule and not waste opportunities like the (deep) shot to Benji. Kansas City is a good football team, and we didn’t match their intensity early, but it was good to put a few drives together and score some points.”
Avant said the timing issues with Newton early were not all the quarterback’s fault.
“That was his first live action in a game. It’s a lot different timing going with him in the game. You have to know when to break off (routes), when not to,” Avant said. “In practice you get the best looks a lot of time. So you’d like to get that timing when everything isn’t perfect.”
Stewart ran four times in the first half for 26 yards, including a 17-yard gain that gave the Panthers their initial first down on the first play from scrimmage in the second quarter.
Avant said Stewart’s run and that elusive first down helped the offense relax.
“Just getting back in rhythm. Once we got a first down, we knew it’d be good,” Avant said. “So we just focused on that (fourth) drive, just trying to get a first down. And once we got one, it was on.”
The Chiefs outgained the Panthers 114-1 in total yards during the first quarter but only had a 3-0 lead to show for it.
Benjamin, the first-round pick from Florida State, pulled down two passes for 41 yards against a secondary that played – by Benjamin’s estimate – 90-percent man coverage.
Benjamin was penalized for unnecessary roughness after losing his cool during the second quarter.
After making a catch out of bounds, Benjamin started jawing with cornerback Chris Owens. Benjamin then flicked the ball at Owens, head-butted him and pushed him in the head, drawing a flag on the Panthers’ sideline.
“I was like, ‘Man, get out of here.’ But it’s still not appropriate. That’s my bad. That was a mistake,” said Benjamin, who heard from several coaches and veterans.
“Some of the vets (said) we don’t really need (that) when the season comes,” Benjamin said.
Defensive end Charles Johnson injured his hamstring and did not play the second half.
Several defensive starters played well for the Panthers. Cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Melvin White each had six tackles and made a couple of nice open-field stops.
Outside linebacker A.J. Klein, starting in place of an injured Chase Blackburn, intercepted rookie Aaron Murray and returned the pick 29 yards to the Kansas City 8 to set up running back Fozzy Whittaker’s 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Whittaker made a strong case for a roster spot with a game-high 71 rushing yards on 13 carries.