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
|Robert Griffin III||55||78||70.5%||778||3||1||6||10||109.9|
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
|Robert Griffin III||44||60||73.3%||500||2||1||7||8.3||102.1|
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
|Robert Griffin III||31||48||64.6%||289||2||1||3||6||86.2|
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:
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.