Cam Newton Still Has Yet to Reach His Peak in the NFL

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterJuly 1, 2014

AP Photo/Mike McCarn

The Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton has a chance to be the best quarterback ever.

That's what I wrote almost three years ago, when the No. 1 overall pick threw for a record-breaking 854 yards in his first two games. With the frame and arm of the old-school greats, and athleticism never seen before in a man his size (6'5", 245 lbs), Newton's upside was unlimited.

At the end of that rookie year, he'd completed 60 percent of his passes for 4,051 yards at a very healthy 7.84 yards per attempt. He threw touchdowns (4.1 percent) more frequently than interceptions (3.3 percent), per A Pro Bowl nod capped off his strong rookie season, and the 6-10 Panthers were headed for a bright future.

When Carolina got off to a miserable 2-8 start in 2012, all of that upward momentum fizzled. Newton mixed strong games with disastrous ones. Even a 5-1 stretch wasn't enough to salvage a deeply disappointing sophomore effort.

In 2013, of course, the Panthers rolled to a 12-4 record—that was more about the NFL's second-best scoring defense than Newton.

What if this is as good as he gets?


Taking Stock

Well, just how good has Newton been?

Looking at Pro-Football-Reference, we can compare Newton's first three seasons to the first three years of every NFL quarterback in history. By using indexed stats, we'll see each quarterback's production relative to league averages at the time—so the stats will be corrected for their era. We'll use the indexed version of adjusted net yards per attempt, my favorite one-number measure of quarterback effectiveness.

When sorting the 99 quarterbacks who started at least 24 games in their three years by ANY/A Index, Newton ranks 30th. That's better than it sounds; his first-three-year ANY/A Index is tied with Tom Brady's.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Plenty of Hall of Famers started off less effectively than Newton (Dan Fouts, John Elway, Warren Moon, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman), and a few mediocre QBs started hotter (Pat Haden, Ken O'Brien, Jay Schroeder, Jeff Blake). The kicker is that it's 104, in a stat where 100 represents the contemporary league average.

As a passer, when yards, attempts, sacks and touchdowns are all taken into account, Netwon's a little above average. Oh, and there's also his 2,032 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns over that same span, at 5.6 yards per attempt.

Pro Bowl voting is hardly the be-all, end-all of player evaluation—but of that group of 99 young starting quarterbacks, Newton is one of just 11 with at least two Pro Bowl nods. There are no clunkers on that list; almost all are Hall of Famers or future inductees.



Right now, the football hive mind doesn't seem high on Newton.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

He hasn't figured out his role as a franchise quarterback. No, literally: When playing the role of NFL franchise quarterback on the sidelines and in front of the press, specifically in his first two seasons, he has confounded our expectations and fluffed his cliched lines.

Failing to have Peyton Manning's personality has drawn Newton savage personal attacks, like the predraft evaluation's Nolan Nawrocki did for Pro Football Weekly.

Last spring,'s Adam Schein said the Panthers could be "one of the four worst teams in the NFC" in 2013, adding that Newton "hasn't progressed," "isn't focused enough" and "needs to grow up." Schein cited Newton's non-captaincy as proof he didn't have the respect of the locker room.

Of course, Newton was voted a captain for 2013, and the Panthers were one of the four best teams in a stacked NFC. Armchair psychoanalysts may disagree, but as an armchair general manager I see a very young quarterback progressing nicely.

Let's look at Newton's indexed rate stats over his first three years, again from Pro-Football-Reference. One hundred is average, higher is better:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Newton's yards per attempt were well above league average in his first two seasons and fell to just above average in his third. His adjusted net yards per attempt fell, too, but not as dramatically. Is Newton actually regressing?

Hardly. His completion, touchdown and interception rates have all gotten better with time. Newton's decision-making, execution and efficiency as a passer have markedly improved since his rookie season.

In 2013, though, he was sacked more often, and threw shorter passes. Newton averaged an NFL-best 13.8 yards per completion in 2012, but that fell to 11.6 yards in 2013. Why would Newton get gun-shy with downfield passes and take more sacks even as he saw the field better and threw more accurately?

Maybe because there was nobody to throw to?


"Supporting" Cast

At this point, every football fan should get the idea that quarterbacks don't boom or bust in a vacuum.

Besides teammates and head coaches, there are offensive coordinators, offensive systems and quarterback coaches that play major roles in a signal-caller's success or failure. There are even freelance quarterback coaches who help prepare college QBs for the NFL draft—or high school quarterbacks for college recruiting.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Newton took an unusual path to the NFL, playing just one season of Division I college football.

The progression chart above shows his age instead of the season for a reason: Having just turned 25, Newton's only a year older than rookie Tom Savage and only two years older than rookies like Derek Carr, Aaron Murray, Logan Thomas and AJ McCarron. Yet, Newton didn't have the college experience many of those players did.

Newton's done most of his development as a passer in his 48 career NFL starts, and his receivers have been getting worse all the while.

Star receiver Steve Smith was supposed to be Newton's veteran security blanket in 2011, and he was—but he faded with each successive year and was a shadow of his former self in 2013. The Panthers let Smith and almost all of their other receivers go in the offseason.

Not only are Newton's new veteran receivers, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, at best no better than the ones they replaced, they're unfamiliar. As Bleacher Report NFL Analyst Gary Davenport wrote, the Panthers need first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin to pan out immediately.

The point here isn't to blame Newton's supporting cast for his lack of progress but to highlight that he has in fact progressed despite his receiving corps going the other direction. If he takes the next step in 2014, there'll be absolutely no argument: Newton is great, and trending upward.


The Next Step

Eugene Tanner/Associated Press

Franchise quarterbacks make their teammates better. They paper over cracks in the roster. They turn losses into wins with great games, or even one great play at just the right time. Cam Newton is not always that guy, not quite yet.

Carolina is going to have a very tough road back to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. The NFC South figures, once again, to be one of the strongest divisions in football—and if the Panthers improved, they improved less than any of the other three teams in their division (Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers).

There's only so many games the defense (and suddenly aggressive head coach "Riverboat" Ron Rivera) can win. For the Panthers to get back to the playoffs, and prepare themselves for a Super Bowl run in 2015, Newton will have to break through into the NFL's elite.

To do that, he needs to be able to balance the confidence and aggression of his first two years with the mature error-avoidance of his third. If he can do that, Newton will establish himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL—and he will be on track to be remembered as one of the all-time greats.


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