Cam vs. Colin: Game within a game

Cam Newton roomed with Colin Kaepernick at the 2011 Combine. NFL coaches probably came by and slipped love notes under the door to one of them.

Jim Harbaugh might have written, “Dear Plutonium-Grade Raw Material, you and I together would nuke the NFL.”

Alas, he and Newton could never bond. The Heisman Trophy winner was everybody’s No. 1 choice. San Francisco ended up taking the WAC Offensive Player of the Year with the 36th pick.

The roommates will finally meet again in San Francisco on Sunday in what has evolved into a mushroom cloud of a game.

San Francisco is rolling, which isn’t much of a surprise. But the Panthers have blown out four straight opponents and actually look like a real team for the first time in Ron Rivera’s three years as coach.

That has given FOX’s Game of the Week a marquee subplot. Newton vs. Kaepernick – which roommate would you slip the most heartfelt love notes to now?

There’s not a lot to separate them. Both are big, fast, strong and have struggled to put all those things together. Both are contenders for “Best Young NFL Quarterback.”

That title actually goes to Andrew Luck, but he does things the old-fashioned way. Newton and Kaepernick get a lot of new-fashioned style points, especially now that RG III’s wheels are wobbling.

“I think we have similar attributes,” Kaepernick said. “But I think we’re two different players.”

Not so much now, but they used to be. Especially when it comes to the attribute of maturity.

When Newton was good, he was very, very good. When he was bad, he pouted to the point where Carolina fans feared he’d developed Vince Young Disease. The symptoms: great potential, big splash, immaturity kicks in, career flops.

Thankfully, his family had an intervention after last season. Newton’s father and brother showed him video of his game and press-conference performances. As Newton told FOX’s Laura Okmin, “It was very disgusting.”

He saw a sulky figure with a towel over his head and realized he needed to grow up. If needed, his family could also shown video of his old roommate.

Scouts worried that Kaepernick was raw, and playing at Nevada wasn’t exactly like facing an SEC schedule. They never questioned his dedication or humility.

He was a model student behind Alex Smith. When Smith was hurt last season, Kaepernick stepped in and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl. That inflated expectations to levels Newton has endured since passing for 422 yards in his first game.

Kaepernick didn’t meet them early this season. He had seven turnovers in the first four games, and completed less than 50 percent of his passes in back-to-back losses to Seattle and Indianapolis. People forgot that for all the hype, Kaepernick still had seven NFL starts going into the season.

He has caught back up to the learning curve. Kaepernick has one interception in the past four games. The 49ers have won five straight games by an average of 22.6 points.

Nobody’s overly shocked at that. The surprise is in Charlotte, where the Panthers have won the past four games by an average of 20.2 points. A lot of it is defense and Rivera’s growth as a coach. It also helps to have played teams with a combined record of 8-31.

That’s why the Panthers have a lot more to prove than the 49ers. Nobody will be under more scrutiny than Ol’ Plutonium-Grade Raw Material.

That’s what Harbaugh called Newton before the draft. It was a good way to say the kid had atomic potential. Harbaugh resurrected the phrase this week, which might have caused a few nuclear engineers to squinch their noses.

The grades for plutonium are actually reactor-grade and weapons-grade. If you want more details on isotopic composition, check out a chemistry book or join a U.N. inspection team in Syria. All Harbaugh knows is that Newton has been downright radioactive during Carolina’s win streak.

He’s completed 72.3 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Even if there’d been reason to sulk, Newton says he’s over being self-centered.

“If you want to solely say I’m playing great, it also means that lot of other guys are playing great behind the scenes,” he said. “This is not a one-man show. I understand that, and I will not have that type of attitude.”

As nice as it was being the No. 1 pick, Newton’s life would have been easier at No. 36. Kaepernick had time to grow into his role, while he was immediately hyped as the future of NFL quarterbacking.

Now both are legitimate contenders for that role, which brings us back to the big subplot.

Which quarterback is more legit?

That’s like asking which grade of plutonium is more dangerous, reactor or weapons? You really don’t want to mess with either one.