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Cam Newton is having an interesting year

I don’t care about any of the nonsense with Cam Newton. Instead, take a look at his 2011 and 2012 stat lines:

Year   GS  QBrec Cmp Att Cmp%  Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A  AY/A Y/C  Yd/G Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A Sk% Rsh Yds TD  YPC Y/G  C/G
2011   16 6-10-0 310 517 60.0 4051 21 4.1  17  3.3 7.8  7.2 13.1 253.2 35 260  6.9   6.2 6.3 126 706 14  5.6 44.1 7.9
2012    6  1-5-0 101 173 58.4 1387  5 2.9   6  3.5 8.0  7.0 13.7 231.2 15 102  6.8   5.9 8.0  46 273  3  5.9 45.5 7.7

His Y/A is actually higher this year (although his sack rate is a little worse), and his rushing yards per game and yards per carry are both slightly up. Obviously the biggest change is that Newton simply isn’t scoring very much — he’s on pace for just 21 touchdowns after scoring 35 last year. But touchdowns are more volatile than metrics like yards per attempt, and tend to rebound quickly when paired with a strong yards per attempt average. Compared to league average, Newton’s only slightly worse in NY/A and ANY/A than he was last year, and he’s still above-average in both statistics. Statistically, he looks fine.

But the eye test certainly says Newton is struggling. And some stats back that up, too. Newton ranks 25th in Total QBR, although he only ranked 17th in that metric a year ago. Perhaps more importantly, the Carolina offense has plummeted to 29th in points per drive so far in 2012 (while ranking 17th and 19th in drive success rate), after ranking 6th in points per drive (and 6th in yards and 5th in DSR) in 2011. So the offense has been quite a bit worse, and significantly worse when it comes to scoring. That sort of matches what the “eye test” tells me.

But as Aaron Schatz pointed out to me, there are some odd splits going on with Newton. Take a look at how Newton’s performed on pass attempts on 1st downs this year:

Quarterbacks on 1st Down Pass Attempts

Josh Freeman396956.5%76280211133.8
Cam Newton547671.1%76621510.1106.6
Robert Griffin III557870.5%77831610109.9
Alex Smith638375.9%7825179.4119.7
Russell Wilson426168.9%5743229.4101.4
Drew Brees559061.1%7648138.5113.4
Eli Manning6710563.8%8654328.290.4
Andy Dalton678975.3%7253288.1100.6
Tom Brady8412766.1%9865117.899.4
Matt Ryan629763.9%7396347.694.8
Ryan Tannehill406858.8%5163137.691.3
Sam Bradford478654.7%6461227.573.1
Matt Schaub518361.4%6194047.5100.4
Philip Rivers587874.4%5702147.397.7
Matthew Stafford6910764.5%7761427.373.6
Joe Flacco6910863.9%7773237.286.8
Ben Roethlisberger487861.5%5592257.281.1
Mark Sanchez366952.2%4901127.173.9
Tony Romo577972.2%5615107.1107.6
Peyton Manning638871.6%6206147109.1
Kevin Kolb345858.6%406225777.2
Jay Cutler336154.1%4204296.984.1
Carson Palmer6410561%7072176.783.3
Andrew Luck5310152.5%6773446.767.1
Aaron Rodgers689968.7%6598366.7101.4
Blaine Gabbert305851.7%3825356.679.8
Matt Cassel316051.7%3942266.669.7
Ryan Fitzpatrick457758.4%4873336.373.9
Michael Vick509453.2%564258656.3
Christian Ponder547968.4%4691075.988
Matt Hasselbeck365170.6%3012135.990.4
Brandon Weeden5910655.7%6255355.977

You don’t need me to tell you that those are fantastic numbers, a big increase relative to 2011 when he completed just 56.5% of his passes, averaged 7.7 Y/A, and had a 70.8 passer rating on 1st downs. So far, so good. But, Newton’s been a disaster on 2nd downs this year:

Quarterbacks on 2nd Down Pass Attempts

Carson Palmer447062.9%632322994.5
Robert Griffin III446073.3%5002178.3102.1
Christian Ponder558068.8%6503148.1100.5
Joe Flacco508459.5%671226883
Tony Romo537867.9%6183467.983.2
Peyton Manning578467.9%6614127.9102.3
Matt Schaub517766.2%5934137.7101.3
Matt Ryan658675.6%6525147.6111.2
Eli Manning649269.6%7025127.6105.4
Michael Vick477364.4%5511237.580.3
Brandon Weeden508558.8%6091327.270.2
Sam Bradford537669.7%5483367.287
Aaron Rodgers709672.9%68760117.2113.5
Tom Brady578666.3%6102167.189.8
Matthew Stafford578666.3%598206794
Mark Sanchez428052.5%561343766.7
Andy Dalton639566.3%668643790.2
Drew Brees6610562.9%7205456.983
Josh Freeman296445.3%4330436.842
Ryan Tannehill396857.4%4591266.870.6
Alex Smith366159%4173136.889.3
Ben Roethlisberger598371.1%5523136.796.1
Jay Cutler366456.3%4301266.769.1
Cam Newton295453.7%3490246.558.3
Andrew Luck478257.3%5182066.384.3
Philip Rivers467363%4454256.186.8
Kevin Kolb396758.2%4012111679.3
Russell Wilson335560%3271475.952.6
Ryan Fitzpatrick467462.2%4167325.691.9
Matt Cassel386657.6%3571525.446.1
Matt Hasselbeck235343.4%2091223.945.2

Newton and Josh Freeman might get compared to each other for other reasons, but both have a lot in common this year. They are the two leaders in yards per completion despite both having terrible completion percentages. Both are throwing the ball downfield frequently, and both have been outstanding on first downs — perhaps when defenses are less prepared for a deep pass? — and terrible on second downs.

But their third down splits are, well… take a look:

Quarterbacks on 3rd Down Pass Attempts

Peyton Manning325261.5%4924249.5102.4
Aaron Rodgers466867.6%6415199.4116.1
Ben Roethlisberger467164.8%6215048.7116
Matt Hasselbeck354872.9%4011158.495.9
Michael Vick396361.9%5175168.2107.7
Philip Rivers355860.3%4784688.270.1
Jay Cutler355959.3%4762248.182.3
Matt Cassel334967.3%392225888.1
Ryan Tannehill386063.3%4760327.967.1
Drew Brees427456.8%5723247.783.8
Eli Manning366654.5%5053317.775.6
Sam Bradford345957.6%42431137.289.9
Andy Dalton255843.1%4184457.262.3
Ryan Fitzpatrick406660.6%4664327.183.3
Matt Schaub386261.3%4382317.173.2
Tom Brady447062.9%4935167101.7
Tony Romo376061.7%4140436.954.4
Joe Flacco305653.6%3884296.984.5
Matt Ryan335362.3%3653256.985.8
Brandon Weeden447856.4%5303446.868.9
Andrew Luck326549.2%4402366.862.3
Cam Newton173943.6%2613266.770.6
Kevin Kolb335560%3353096.195.6
Robert Griffin III314864.6%289213686.2
Mark Sanchez386955.1%4015295.884.3
Carson Palmer386459.4%3722135.879.7
Josh Freeman335164.7%2913145.791.2
Christian Ponder406561.5%3533555.459.3
Russell Wilson265448.1%2792155.268.4
Matthew Stafford366852.9%341212570.8
Alex Smith274560%2211384.952.2
Blaine Gabbert295255.8%2250054.366.6

Newton has been bad on 3rd downs this year. [Quick FP tip: if you type “New” in each of the above search boxes, you see just Newton’s lines, and can view all three tables without scrolling.] But while his completion percentage is terrible and Freeman’s is very good, note that Newton is averaging a full yard more per attempt.

Perhaps more important than each quarterback’s third down passing numbers above is the next table, which looks at each team’s passing plays on 3rd downs:

TeamGPlaysToGoYdsTDFG1st1st %IntFumSack

Tampa Bay has gained a first down on fewer 3rd down passes than Carolina despite Freeman’s significant edge in completion percentage on third downs. And note how far the Panthers have to go on their average third down pass — more than any other team in the league. Newton is passing in a lot of 3rd and long situations, but give him credit for at least trying to get the first down. On third and 4+, Newton has completed a pass but *not* gained a first down on just 6 plays. Robert Griffin III, Josh Freeman, Brandon Weeden, Blaine Gabbert, and Carson Palmer lead the league in completions on 3rd-and-4+ that do not go for a first down. The only regular quarterbacks with fewer “meaningless completions” than Newton are Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.

I find that interesting, and a good sign for Newton’s outlook (or, at a minimum, a sign that with better coaching, he’d have better numbers).

I said earlier that Newton was bad on 2nd down; let’s break that down a bit. In 2nd-and-long situations (2nd-and-7+), the real knock on Newton seems to be that he’s trying to do too much. He has only 8 completions on 2nd-and-long that did not go for a first down. To put it another way, 65% of his 2nd-and-long completions have gone for a first down, the highest rate in the league. And his 2nd-and-long passes that didn’t go for a first down gained only 1.5 yards per attempt, the lowest rate in the league.

What does all that mean? On 2nd-and-long, Newton is pressing. He’s trying to get the first down on one play, and only if everyone is covered will he essentially throw a meaningless checkdown. On 43 pass plays (41 attempts, 2 sacks) on 2nd-and-long, only six times have the Panthers gained between 3 and 6 yards. Ben Roethlisberger, who is complaining about his dink and dunk offense, has gained between 3 and 6 yards 12 times on 59 such plays (56 attempts, 3 sacks).

We can break the numbers down based on how the pass is designated, too. On 59 pass plays on 2nd-and-long, Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and the game charters did not add anymore description to the play twice. On the remaining 54 attempts, Roethlisberger’s throw was classified as “short” 50 times and as “deep” 4 times. Newton had 34 “short” throws and 7 deep throws on his 41 pass plays. And Newton isn’t getting much help, either. On his 34 “short” throws, his receivers gained 7+ yards just 13 times, while 25 of Roethlisberger’s “short” throws went for at least seven yards.

Maybe Newton just isn’t accurate on short throws, but I think there’s more to it than that. I said at the top that I don’t really care about the nonsense with Newton, but maybe I should. I think the nonsense is starting to have an effect, and Cam is likely trying to do too much to live up to some very high expectations. He’s been great on first downs, but he tries to do too much on 2nd and 3rd downs. This is something that Alex Smith said he struggled with early in his career:

“[Following Montana and Young] and being a No. 1 draft pick carries its share of pressure and demands,” Smith says. “I do feel like as a young player I was trying to justify myself on every … single … throw. I wanted to throw the great ball every … single … time.

“I don’t know if it necessarily was the quarterback lineage here. But, yeah, it was a little bit. Being a No. 1, too, you have to validate all that stuff. I tried to. I tried to every single time I came out to make a throw.

I’m not a psychiatrist, and I haven’t ever met Newton, but I get the sense that he’s dealing with same of the same issues here, and the data support that theory. I also don’t think Newton is getting a lot of help from his coaching staff or his teammates. They shouldn’t be making things so difficult for him; he needs to have more intermediate routes available to him, more checkdown options, and more players who can make big plays after the catch. Carolina strikes me as a team that could be a lot more effective if they used some dink and dunk; if Ron Rivera and Rob Chudzinski don’t fix the offense, the Panthers would be justified in finding some coaches who can.

  • Richie

    I was going to say that I think Carolina just needs to run the ball more. Then I discovered that they rank 31st in pass attempts. But they also rank 25th in rush attempts. So they just don’t run many plays. They rank 13th in (highest) percentage of rushing plays.

  • Matt

    One thing this doesn’t talk about are his intangibles as a quarterback. Nowhere in the article does it discuss his ability to read a defense, go through his progressions, and successfully hit a receiver in obvious passing situations. This would go a long way in explaining his ineptitude on 2nd and 3rd and long. From the little game film I’ve seen on him, this definitely seems like the case. Granted, I haven’t seen a ton, as the watching the Panthers tends to bore me, but this should really be looked at in more depth. I just don’t think he’s that great of a natural quarterback, and aside from being a good athlete and being able to get the ball deep when the defense isn’t expecting it, he can’t seem to do much else.