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Is Steve Smith The Cause of Cam Newton’s Down Year?

by Chase Stuart on December 1, 2013

in Current Events

You probably didn’t know it, but Cam Newton is having a down year, at least statistically.

Year GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A Sk%
2011 16 310 517 60.0 4051 21 4.1 17 3.3 7.8 7.2 13.1 253.2 35 260 6.87 6.24 6.3
2012 16 280 485 57.7 3869 19 3.9 12 2.5 8.0 7.6 13.8 241.8 36 244 6.96 6.65 6.9
2013 11 208 337 61.7 2353 17 5.0 9 2.7 7.0 6.8 11.3 213.9 31 235 5.76 5.58 8.4

Carolina’s defense has been outstanding, of course, so an 8-3 record and a seven-game winning streak have overshadowed any flaws in Newton’s game. The Panthers have held an average lead of 5.05 points per second this year, the third best rate in the league. As a result of that high Game Script, Newton is asked to do less on offense, but that doesn’t explain the declining efficiency numbers. Newton’s taking slightly more sacks and his rushing numbers are down across the board, but the biggest decline comes with respect to yards per completion.

The Loveboat

The Loveboat.

After lead the league in that metric a season ago, Newton is averaging just 11.3 yards per completion this year, the 23rd best rate among qualifying passers. As a result, Newton is posting career lows in yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt.

Yards per attempt and the many variations thereof don’t tell the full story, of course. Carolina is running a more horizontal, move-the-chains style of offense, and it’s working: the Panthers rank 4th in drive success rate, and only 49% of Carolina drives have ended in a turnover or a punt, the 6th-best rate in the league.

Still, it’s not good to lose a full yard off of a passer’s average throw. Can we figure out why? The table below breaks down the Panthers targets from 2011 to 2013 into four groups: Steve Smith, the rest of the wide receivers, the tight ends, and the running backs. For each row, I’ve included the average yards per target gained on throws to that group, with the percentage of targets next to that number in parentheses.

Pos
2013
2012
2011
896.4 (28%)8.5 (29%)10.8 (25%)
WR2+8.2 (35%)7.8 (31%)8.2 (26%)
TE7.7 (21%)8.4 (23%)6.5 (30%)
RB5.5 (16%)7.5 (17%)6.2 (18%)

As it turns out, the biggest reason for Newton’s decline in yards per attempt is on throws to Smith: while the star wideout has continued to receive between 25 and 29% of all Panthers targets, his yards per target average has dropped significantly in 2013. Even as a proud member of the #89 fan club, I can recognize that those are some ugly numbers.

This season, all NFL wide receivers are averaging 7.76 yards per target. I’m not a fan of using yards per target data generally, and I wouldn’t advocate using the following as much more than trivia, but I thought it would be interesting to look at which receivers have produced the most and fewest yards over average per target. For example, DeSean Jackson has 985 receiving yards on 89 targets, an 11.1 Y/T average. Considering the “average” receiver would gain 691 yards on 89 targets, Jackson has produced 294 yards over average this year, the highest rate in the league. Below are the top ten receivers in yards over average.

Player
TM
Targ
YD
Yds/Tar
YOAvg
DeSean JacksonPHI8998511.1294
Jordy NelsonGB8994710.6256
Calvin JohnsonDET12311989.7243
Josh GordonCLE9898810.1227
Doug BaldwinSEA5058611.7198
Keenan AllenSD7173710.4186
Michael FloydARI7677410.2184
Kenny StillsNO3747012.7183
Harry DouglasATL858339.8173
Demaryius ThomasDEN1019559.5171

And, more relevantly, the bottom 10:

Player
TM
Targ
YD
Yds/Tar
YOAvg
Dwayne BoweKC774776.2-121
Cordarrelle PattersonMIN482505.2-123
Cecil ShortsJAX1067006.6-123
Steve SmithCAR915816.4-126
Jason AvantPHI593165.4-142
Steve JohnsonBUF794716-142
Kenny BrittTEN29672.3-158
Darrius Heyward-BeyIND562634.7-172
Greg LittleCLE763614.8-229
Davone BessCLE743154.3-260

Again, there are many issues with using a statistic like yards per target, but Smith is obviously not putting himself in great company. That list consists of players with terrible quarterbacks, talented receivers having down seasons, and bad/rookie wide receivers. And, of course, Smith. So let’s investigate further. Why is Smith’s yards per target average so low? It’s not because of his catch rate, which at 56% is in between where it was in 2011 and 2012. But after averaging 16.9 yards per catch during Newton’s first two years, Smith’s averaging just 11.4 yards per grab this season. That’s why Smith is averaging just 53 yards per game, the third lowest average of his career behind only his rookie season and the Jimmy Clausen season.

We can also break down Smith’s declining yards per completion average, too. In 2011, Smith averaged 17.65 yards per catch, thanks to averaging 11.84 yards per catch through the air and 5.81 yards after the catch. Last season, Smith’s 16.08 YPC average was based on averaging 12.41 yards per catch through the air and 3.67 yards after the catch on each reception. This year, Smith is averaging only 8.51 air yards per catch and 2.88 yards of YAC per catch. Last year, Smith ranked 5th among the top 100 most targeted players in air yards per catch (behind only Vincent Jackson, Lance Moore, Torrey Smith and Malcom Floyd); this year, he’s tied for 41st.

I noted at the top of the post that the Panthers ran a much more vertical offense under Rob Chudzinski than the team does under Mike Shula. That’s reflected in the fact that Smith’s air yards per catch is way down. But the problem is his catch rate — while on the surface not declining — is really ugly in that regard.

Reggie Wayne (9.1 Air Yards/Catch) caught 65.5% of his targets before his season-ending injury; Antonio Brown (8.0) is at 69% in Pittsburgh’s horizontal offense. Keenan Allen (9.2) is at 70%. Dez Bryant (8.2) is at only 58.1%, but he makes up for it by averaging 5.5 yards after the catch per reception. Anquan Boldin has a 63% catch rate despite his averaging reception being 9.6 yards down the field and despite the struggles of Colin Kaepernick. Posting a sub-60% catch rate while running short routes is not good.

Does that mean this is the beginning of the end for Smitty? I don’t know. It’s certainly possible that Newton is as much or more to blame for the duo’s struggles than Smith. And it could just be a slump — there’s still time for Smith to finish the year strong. But I do think it’s interesting that the two Panthers offensive stars seem to be having down years while the hype around the team has never been higher.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Shattenjager December 1, 2013 at 3:31 am

Before the season, the Panthers were my NFC Super Bowl pick. In the first few weeks, seeing Newton’s yards per completion, I cursed Mike Shula. Then, when I finally got to watch them actually play, I was struck by the sudden realization that the nigh unthinkable seemed to have happened: Steve Smith has finally hit the age wall. I rather expected him just to be a great receiver until he was 38 years old or so, just because he always seemed to me to be some sort of wizard, but he sure looked like he had really lost something, and I haven’t seen anything since to suggest that my initial impression was wrong. It’s a sad thing to see happen just as he finally gets a good QB. I’m still hoping for a rebound.

I find the coverage of Newton in general borderline comical. He produced essentially the same season for his first two years in the league. For the first, he was praised as a conquering hero who justified every ounce of hype. For the second, while his team actually had a record one game better than the previous year, he was absolutely ripped to shreds on a daily basis. This year he is producing at a much lower rate. And yet, because his team looking much better and he has three 4th quarter comebacks, he is praised for his “newfound calm” and “command of the huddle.” He’s like a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with football coverage.

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Carolina Fried December 1, 2013 at 10:30 am

Shattenjer, never met you and you sound like you may be from out of state, but you from a very close perspective you are spot on, absolutely nailed. Need to get Smitty into slot to extend his career, give Cam a comfort blanket until they get new #1. But the shame of sports coverage is exactly as you said, couldn’t say it better mysmelf.

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Chase Stuart December 1, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Very well said.

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Vagus December 1, 2013 at 10:59 pm

Magnificent comment. Spot on, sir.

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Richie December 2, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Before the season, the Panthers were my NFC Super Bowl pick.

Get out of town.

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Ziats December 1, 2013 at 11:20 am

Stats alone do not tell the qb story. The last two years chudzinski’s “big chunk” offense emphasized big plays downfield. Where Newton struggled was on short yardage passes to pick up first downs and touchdowns, where he relied on the running game.

This year we’ve seen Newton making these short field passes, getting the ball in the end zone with his arm, and Steve Smith has played an important part in getting those necessary short yards.

While I agree that Smith’s aging is having an effect on his ability to be a downfield threat, I’ll take the Newton of this year over the Newton of previous years any Sunday.

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James December 3, 2013 at 10:26 am

According to Advanced NFL Stats Cam’s success rate has increased from 47% to 49% from his first two seasons to this season. I don’t know if that 2% increase is worth losing about a yard per play, but maybe it is since his expected points per play is just about the same as before.

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Fahim December 1, 2013 at 11:20 am

It’s probable a combination of age and the offense they run. Smith has to have lost a step and can break tackles as well at age 38 as he could at age 28 and they don’t go deep as often.

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CH December 2, 2013 at 3:45 pm

The overall yards are going down, but the big catches aren’t.

If I had to pick between the guy getting 15 yards a catch or dependable for first downs, I’ll take the guy extending drives. Smith ranks in at #7 for first downs per reception.

That 30 yard catch looks great until the drives stalls on the next set of downs.

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Chase Stuart December 2, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Smith is tied for just 26th in first down receptions.

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CH December 2, 2013 at 3:51 pm

True, but no one said otherwise.

Read closer

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Chase Stuart December 2, 2013 at 3:53 pm

I think Smith isn’t really extending drives that well if he’s only 26th in first downs.

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CH December 2, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Was the per reception part that confusing?

If Smith was in the same position as pretty much all of the 23 guys above him..he’d have plenty more first downs. Seeing as he is even at #24 on a team with 8 separate offensive threats tell more of the story.

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Shattenjager December 3, 2013 at 2:00 am

Also a -8.2% DVOA. A great chain-mover will have a great DVOA even if he isn’t much of a deep threat (see Jerricho Cotchery’s league-leading 50.4%, Eddie Royal’s 48.8%, and Doug Baldwin’s 37.5%), and Smith doesn’t.

Smith, incidentally, is not seventh in first downs per reception, either.: http://stats.washingtonpost.com/fb/leaders.asp?year=&type=Receiving&range=NFL&rank=059
(Since that list only shows the top 20, I will point out that Smith would be at 72.2%. I can’t find a full list of the league to know exactly where that would rank, but it’s obviously outside of the top 20.)

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CH December 3, 2013 at 11:33 am

If you’re going to count everyone you make the stat pointless. A guy who is 1 for 1 is 100%. Cutting it off at 30+ first downs puts Smith at #8.

And it still doesn’t change my original point. What other teams with a guy in the top tier have 8 seperate offensive weapons and are #2 in rushing FDs? Over 75% of the time when Smith gets the ball its a TD or FD.

Similar to Tolbert, he doesn’t have the flashy stats..but almost half the time he touches the ball.. its a TD or FD.

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James December 3, 2013 at 10:39 am

Chase, with all of these new running QBs and schemes how long until we get something like Adjusted Net Yards per Touch on PFR?

I’m thinking (passing yards + rushing yards – sack yards +20*ALL touchdowns – 45*turnovers) / (passes + rushes + sacks).

It always seemed silly to me that a scrambling QB that gets tackled one yard behind the LOS hurts his NYPA while getting tackled one yard in front of it is ignored, and now guys like Kaepernick, Luck, and even Brady are hurting their ANYA by running in touchdowns. Of course, Cam is DESTROYING his ANYA by running in 28 touchdowns in the last 3 years, 17 TDs more than anyone else!!

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