The Giants were the first NFL team to face Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton when they traveled to Charlotte for the 2011 preseason opener. Newton, the first overall choice in that year's NFL Draft after leading Auburn to the national championship, didn't start the game; Jimmy Clausen did. His statistics didn't hint at future greatness. He took his first snap in the second quarter and completed eight of 19 passes for 134 yards. Newton was sacked twice and did not have a rushing attempt.
But that was more than enough to impress Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
"After that game I said he was a franchise quarterback," Fewell said this week. "The reason I said that was because I thought he had great poise for a rookie quarterback. We pressured him a lot in that first preseason game, and he seemed to handle it, and he seemed like if he missed the pass, he knew what his read was, he knew where to go with the football, he just missed the throw. He was determined that he was going to make it right. I felt like this guy has a lot of poise. Just with some experience and some time, he's going to be a really nice player."
Except for the fact that he might have underestimated Newton, Fewell's initial evaluation has been spot on. Newton was named the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year after becoming the first player in the NFL history with 4,000 passing yards (4,051) and at least 500 rushing yards (706) in the same season. His 14 rushing touchdowns were a record for quarterbacks. In a victory over New Orleans on Sunday, Newton joined Michael Vick as the only players in NFL history with at least 250 passing yards (253), a 125 passer rating (129.2), at least 70 rushing yards (71) and a rushing touchdown in a single game.
Now the Giants will face Newton in a regular season game for the first time when they visit the Panthers tonight in Bank of America Stadium. As if that wasn't a large enough challenge, the Giants must do so on a short week. Their comeback victory over Tampa Bay ended at 4:26 p.m. Sunday. They will kick off tonight's game almost exactly 100 hours later.
"Cam had a number of yards himself, but we've been studying and looking at this in the offseason and trying to put together our thoughts on it," coach Tom Coughlin said. "I think if you had two weeks, it would be a challenge. But nevertheless we're working at it. The unfortunate thing is you don't have really much time to spend (practicing) full speed, so it's difficult. You can be in pretty good shape in the jog through and then you've got your challenge on game day, but we're working at it."
Despite their limited preparation time, the Giants will be ready to go and they insist it will not affect their ability to win the game.
"Everything is a little bunched up," safety Antrel Rolle said. "Coach Coughlin has done a good job keeping our layers under us, making sure that we're still getting the mental reps, as well as the full go reps. Make sure that we're still intact."
The Giants had just one full practice, on Tuesday. They will have extra meetings this week, including the morning of the game. But traveling and playing with only three days rest presents both mental and physical trials.
"It's tougher mentally," linebacker Michael Boley said. "You've got a lot to put into a short week considering, obviously, a new offense and they do a lot of different things, a lot of different formations. It doesn't give you a whole lot of time to get the whole mental aspect of it down."
"There are a lot of physical challenges, too," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "For us old guys, not getting the chance to get your body back to the way you want it, like you could with a Sunday game. For us, it's important for us to make sure that we take care of our bodies, so we can be at full strength come Thursday night."
Not to be forgotten is that the offense has also had its preparation time squeezed.
"You just come in and get ready," quarterback Eli Manning said. "You put the last game behind you, and try to get ready for this defense, get ready for Carolina. (We started) our preparation with (Monday's) walkthrough – studied some of their looks, some of their base things. You talk about things a lot more. You have time out there, where you can discuss and go over things. It is a short week, you're not getting as many live reps as you normally do, guys are still sore and trying to recover. We had some live action, just with the receivers running around. We thought that was good."
Newton would be a handful regardless of how much time the Giants had to prepare. The Panthers significantly improved on offense between their first and second games. In the opener at Tampa Bay, they rushed for only 10 yards. Against New Orleans, their total was 219 yards on the ground. Their total yards increased from 301 to 463. Newton leads the NFL with an average of 10.5 yards per pass attempt.
The Giants have faced their share of dual-threat quarterbacks, most notably Vick, who plays for NFC East-rival Philadelphia. Fewell has not ruled out having someone shadow Newton wherever he goes.
"If it's necessary, yes, I'll use a spy," Fewell said. "Versus an athletic quarterback like Cam Newton, or Michael Vick, there's no doubt about it.
"When we face a guy like Cam and a guy like Michael, you have to have 11 guys, not just the linebackers alone, but I do like our linebackers and the speed of our backers and the way that they can run and be able to defend these guys. You have to have all 11 guys looking at these guys and really know where these guys are, because they can bust out at any point in time."
"He's a phenomenal athlete," Rolle said. "He's a great kid, and he'll present different challenges for us. We have to get our motors running. It's going to be a long game, a long 60 minutes."