OK, before anyone gets riled up about this: There is no quarterback controversy in Carolina.
Backup quarterback Derek Anderson played the whole game Sunday for injured Cam Newton, and Anderson threw the ball so well in a 20-14 Carolina win that there will be some fans this week who will say that Anderson should have been starting all along.
Well, no. He shouldn’t. I pulled coach Ron Rivera aside to make sure, though, on Sunday night after his news conference.
“There is no quarterback controversy whatsoever,” Rivera told me. “Cam is our starter. He’s been our starter since Day 1, and he’ll continue to be our starter.”
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And will Newton likely start Sunday in the home opener against Detroit?
“Yes, I think so,” Rivera said. “As long as we have no setbacks, I think we’ll be ready to roll.”
So with that as the context, let us praise Anderson effusively for what he did Sunday as Carolina won its first opener since 2008. Anderson completed 24 of 34 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns. He had no turnovers and a quarterback rating of 108.7. He was cramping in his right forearm and both calves throughout the second half, and he still fought his way through for a victory in his first NFL start since 2010 when he played for Arizona.
“He did an awesome job,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said of Anderson. “He’s been preparing for four years here, and he finally got his start. We probably have the best backup quarterback in the league. He’s a starting-caliber player.”
Anderson has had an awesome past couple of weeks. He and his wife welcomed their first child, a baby girl, into the world in late August. Now he has won his first Panthers start.
“I had a blast,” Anderson said. “I’ve been through a lot of different things. I haven’t been out there in four years (as a starter). Just to play a solid football game and get a win was big for me.”
It might have been only a one-week substitution for Anderson, or it might not have been. Rivera didn’t make the final decision on Newton until Saturday night. He decided to make Newton inactive to give his fractured ribs another week to heal and turned to Anderson. He told both of them in person, coming into Anderson’s hotel room to let him know.
“Let’s go get this,” Rivera told the player everyone on the team calls “D.A.”
And D.A. did. He used play-action effectively throughout the game. He threw one complete short pass after another. He converted 40 percent of the time on third down.
“They used safe routes,” Tampa Bay middle linebacker Mason Foster said, “and they were just making plays.”
Anderson was no threat on the read-option plays the way Newton is – Anderson merely handed the ball off every time. But he did use his big, 6-foot-6 frame to get a crucial first down when Rivera gambled, going for it on fourth-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 5 in the second quarter with the game in a scoreless tie.
Shortly after that, Anderson ran another beautiful play-action, drawing in a linebacker with a fake and then hitting Olsen for a 5-yard touchdown. He recognized the formation Tampa Bay was in from something the Panthers had seen in the Buccaneers’ exhibition against Buffalo and exploited it.
His second touchdown pass? “That should have been an interception,” Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith groused.
It helps to have a huge wide receiver like rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Anderson’s calf cramped up on his 26-yard throw to Benjamin, and the ball wobbled. But Benjamin somehow came down with it, scoring his first NFL touchdown.
“A spectacular catch,” Anderson said.
It was. But most of Anderson’s passes were relatively simple to catch – placed in the correct spot, with little threat of error. He “managed the game,” as Rivera kept saying. There wasn’t a lot of Newton dazzle to it, but there also wasn’t a single turnover. It was winning football.
This ultimately is Newton’s team to run, and it will and should be waiting for him when he gets back. There will and should be no controversy.
But to have a player like Anderson is a luxury – until he turns into a necessity, like he was on Sunday.
“Derek’s a pro,” Rivera said. “I don’t worry about Derek.”
On Sunday, no one else had to, either.