Why Cam Newton Was Still A Great Quarterback In 2016

Cam Newton was the best quarterback of 2015. Winning MVP and carrying the Carolina Panthers to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2003, Newton’s level of play guided the team to a 15-1 record and their third consecutive NFC South title.

Expectations for Carolina and Newton were about the same in 2016, but then, everything came spiraling out of control. With injuries to key players and a much tougher schedule, the team finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Newton’s numbers have also been scrutinized. Putting up the league’s lowest completion percentage (52.9%) while throwing for 3,509 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, this for many was enough to drop the QB out of the top 5 or top 10 discussions. In addition to fans and analysts citing that Newton has to show improvement for the Panthers to make it back to the Super Bowl, this sets up the idea that he had a major regression last year.

The NFL is populated by analysis that is rooted heavily in raw statistics, so from their perspectives it makes sense to suggest Newton did not have a good year. With these stats, however, it’s critical to point context into why they happened, which is a mistake many stat buffs make.

For instance, Newton’s accuracy has always been brought up, but this is usually done without context. The Panthers run one of the most aggressive passing games in the league, regularly pushing the ball downfield and calling vertical routes religiously. Research tells us that every QB will see their accuracy decrease on long passing in comparison to short passing.

The issue is that when you play behind an injured, beaten up offensive line and throw to receivers that cannot catch, create separation, run the correct routes or win at the catch point, your completion percentage is of course going to suck. That’s not to say that Newton is the most accurate passer in the game, but his accuracy is better than people think it is. In the 2016-17 edition of the Deep Ball Project, Cam’s accuracy on throws of both 16+ and 20+ air yards was 8th for the year. This came despite a league worst completion percentage.

To explain why Newton’s downfield accuracy was so good in 2016, it’s appropriate to start with a more obscure method of analysis; Looking at his receivers. The Panthers have one of the worst receiving units in the NFL, as stated previously, and have consistently ruined big plays from their quarterback. This is not relatively new (It’s happened for the last 3 years as far as I can tell), but along with the injured offensive line, caused Newton’s stats to crumble.

Famed Irish NFL analyst Cian Fahey stated in his 2017 QB Catalogue that Newton experienced the 2nd most failed receptions (throws the receiver should have caught) of any team in 2016 with 59 failed receptions (only behind Aaron Rodgers who according to Fahey witnessed his receivers leave 67 catches on the field). Newton lost 845 yards on these passes, also 2nd to Rodgers’ 875. (Fahey also noted that Newton’s accuracy percentage dropped below 70% in four of the last five games of the season, and he had an accuracy percentage of less than 60% in 3 of those 4 games. That was critical in making his overall completion percentage and the accuracy percentage Fahey gave him look far worse than they would have been with a healthy Newton.)

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Kelvin Benjamin was a part of the legendary WR Draft Class of 2014 (a class that includes Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, Jarvis Landry, Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson, and UDFA Allen Hurns), but he’s heading closer to bust territory at this rate. Despite his size, he’s a receiver that lacks discipline in every area that counts. Above, Newton fires a catchable pass to Benjamin. Benjamin creates little separation on the play, and when he does get his hands on the ball (theoretically), he can’t get himself to haul it in.

The pass needed a good play from the wide receiver to complete it, but at the same time it was still an accurate pass. Benjamin’s inability to separate and soft hands botches this opportunity.

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Ted Ginn is notorious for his poor ball skills, and in 2016 proved no different. Where in 2015 he went on a 2nd half stretch where he was able to minimize the amount of drops he had, they came back full force the next year.

On this play, Newton fires a perfect pass that should be a trip to the red zone if caught at the very least. For some odd reason, Ginn keeps waving his hand up long after Newton fires it as if he was making a fair catch or was Randy Moss. He drops the pass, the sun is hot.

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This pass to Ed Dickson triggers the same result. It’s a beautifully thrown ball that bounces off the hands of Dickson, wasting a touchdown. It’s a theme that followed the Panthers from week 1 until week 17.

Combine that with Newton playing through injuries in the 2nd half of the season, and the 2016 Panthers were an utter disaster.

Despite these setbacks, Newton’s quality wasn’t that far off from his MVP season in 2015. In fact, it actually was great for a large part of the season.

Cam Newton’s been able to carry bad offenses for his entire career in the NFL because he’s one of the league’s top quarterbacks. When he won the MVP, it was during a season where Carolina played a soft schedule. This allowed the supporting cast to look better than it actually was, but Newton’s high quality play remained unchanged, just with monster stats.

It’s an outlier for the quality of the offense around Newton, but not for Newton himself. With something like the Steelers’ offensive line and receivers around him, he’d consistently put up massive numbers every year. That’s not a strike against a great QB like Ben Roethlisberger, that’s just showing how he’s been able to have a good supporting cast, which is what the Panthers need to do with Newton.

But before I get too carried away, let’s take a look at why I think Newton was still a great quarterback in 2016, looking at what truly defines him as an underrated great.

Newton’s ability as a run threat is obvious. As a dynamic passer and runner, his ability gives the Panthers offense multiple dimensions to work with. He is quite known as a runner, and he’s also one of the best passers in football.

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As previously mentioned, Carolina runs an aggressive passing offense that encourages pushing the ball downfield, and this is because of Newton’s playing style. He is one of the league’s hungriest QBs in terms of further pushing the ball, aggressively attacking tight windows with precision passing and throwing receivers open even when they aren’t.

In the first play above, Newton works a pocket that gets more condensed as time goes by. While his mechanics are awkward (he doesn’t really step up), it doesn’t matter because of how strong Newton’s arm is as well as the accuracy of the throw. The pass is sensational, leading his receiver to a spot where he can make a catch without being contested with, all while the ball is thrown over everyone’s heads. Newton’s anticipation allows him to be aggressive without constantly being punished, and similar results happen in the 2nd play.

One of the more defining aspects of Newton’s style is in his arm. The range at which he throws as well as the maximum velocity and precision he has on downfield passes give him an otherworldly quality.

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Newton is gifted at throwing 50-60 yards downfield without the need to step into his throws. He is rare in that while his mechanics and footwork are sloppy, they don’t really harm him, as he is comfortable from these angles and consistently throws with accuracy downfield. On the play above, the way Newton throws suggests an awkward desperation pass, but further inspection reveals that his feet were pointing at the place he was throwing Ginn open. The pass is thrown without Newton stepping in and is on time, resulting in an incredible touchdown throw.

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I consider this play one of the five best throws of the 2016 season. As Newton’s pass protection decreased until a small circle surrounded him, he climbed up the pocket and fired in the back corner of the end zone to Ginn. While it was initially ruled incomplete, the replay revealed that it was a touchdown pass, and the ruling was changed. The pass is sensational not just because of the delivery and accuracy, but because of the pocket Newton was working with.

And when it comes to working with condensing pockets, Newton is one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks at handling them.

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Like all other great quarterbacks, Newton’s quality of play thrives under pressure. He’s always looking down the field to give his receivers a chance to make a play even if the pass protection sucks. On this play, the Saints’ front 7 pushes the pocket into Cam, but he keeps cool in spite of this. He isn’t even phased by as he makes multiple reads before moving to his right to find a wide open receiver. He gets the pass off before getting thrown to the ground.

Newton is one of the more notable examples of mobile quarterbacks in the NFL. His peak mobility isn’t at the level of Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Matthew Stafford, but it’s still quite good.

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This play was offset by a holding penalty on Carolina, but it still shows the intelligence and movement the QB makes under pressure. He’s able to break free of a tackle and climbs up the pocket, choosing to release the ball right before taking a shot to the head (a penalty should have been called).

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Newton’s mechanics may not be “normal”, but they remain about the same when the pressure closes in. His movement is terrific; he’ll make subtle movements to ease himself away from pressure and maximize the results of a play. This play combines most of Newton’s traits. He’s able to sidestep an edge rusher, makes quick reads surveying downfield, and fires a precise rocket to his receiver that gets there before the defender does.

It’s indicative of how Newton has played in the NFL.

 

Conclusion

Cam Newton is still a top 10 quarterback, and his 2016 season, while not on par with 2015, was still a great year. His declining stats were based on the health of his offensive line, the vertical offense he plays in, and the horrible quality of the receivers he throws to.

The Panthers drafted Christian McCaffrey in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft to try and ease the pressure on Newton. McCaffrey was a sensational running back in college, and offers some of the most exciting play I’ve ever seen at the college level. His efficiency was tremendous and suggests he can dominate at an NFL level instantly. They won’t rush him behind Jonathan Stewart, an excellent and underrated back in his own right.

The team also drafted Curtis Samuel to help at the receiving end. Samuel is talented, and could be the #1 receiver for the Panthers by the end of the year.

These two players should be able to offer Newton some much needed help, as well as the return of several linemen. Expectations shouldn’t soar too high though, as the offensive line and receivers will still be a problem for Newton. What is important is that he’ll be healthy to start the year.

Whatever the case, Cam Newton is a terrific quarterback that is far too underappreciated. What he lacks in being the most accurate passer in the league he makes up completely with his peak level of play. He makes Carolina stay in games each year and gets the most out of a limited cast of receivers.

Carolina must do all they can to insure that they don’t waste the career of one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever step into the league.

 

Featured image via vibe.com

 

 

 

Colin Kaepernick: Underrated Postseason Quarterback

There’s a certain quarterback out there that’s been constantly getting bashed despite clearly having solid arm strength, a bold personality, a Super Bowl appearance, and excellent postseason criteria.

You might be thinking that the QB I’m referring to is Joe Flacco. It’s not. I’m really referring to Colin Kaepernick.

Yes, Colin Kaepernick, entering his 5th season in the NFL, is one of those “love or hate” players. People who love him usually point out his incredible ability to throw Randy Johnson-esque fastballs 20-30 yards across the field, as well as highlight his experience as a dynamic runner. Those who hate him cite his inability to make multiple reads and downright-at-times bad accuracy. I agree with both sides.

With that said, here’s my case; I think Colin Kaepernick is a really good postseason quarterback on the same level as active guys such as recently crowned playoff god Joe Flacco. Naturally, however, I’m not satisfied with simply saying it, and watched the film of all 6 of Kaepernick’s playoff games. What I discovered is listed below.

The Raw Statistics Are Extremely Misleading

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Let’s get this out of the way quickly. I’m sure a lot of you are pointing to the box score for Colin Kaepernick’s postseason stats. And it’s true, his raw stats do not look like anything a great postseason quarterback would put up. He’s 94 of 162 (58.02 CMP%) for 1,374 yards, 7 TD, 5 INT, and an 87.3 passer rating in his 6 career playoff games. 7 touchdowns in 6 games? 5 interceptions as well? What’s so great about that.

Well, there’s something you should know; Never write off a quarterback’s performance based on the results displayed in the box score. But before I get to what Kaepernick did in the eye test, take a look at the below chart.

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This is a chart of the highest average postseason QBR since 2010 (Note that guys like Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, and Cam Newton all have less than 4 games of postseason play in the 2010s’, and therefore cannot qualify for this list.). Surprised? Yes, Kaepernick has been highly regarded by ESPN’s QBR statistic, and the same can be said as well for Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning (the latter of which is still hanging on that 2011 postseason run). Don’t even get me started on whatever Andy Dalton’s been doing.

Also via ESPN, Kaepernick was 2nd in expected points added (EPA) in the 2012 postseason (20.8, behind Joe Flacco’s 26.1) and 1st in 2013 (18.1). I know what you’re thinking; is that mostly because of his running ability? Yes and no. During the 2012 playoffs, he was 6th in Pass EPA (8.3), and 2nd in 2013 (11.6). As you can probably guess, he was easily 1st in Run EPA in both postseasons (15.5 in 2012, and 10.4 in 2013).

To be ahead of guys like Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady in average postseason QBR since 2010 would be extremely impressive, and that’s precisely what Colin Kaepernick has done.

Colin Kaepernick’s Got A Few Records He’ll Remember For A Lifetime

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It’s obvious that Kaepernick’s dual threat ability is reminiscent of Steve Young (though not as efficient). Speaking of, Young has the record for most rushing yards in the postseason by a quarterback in NFL history (594). Guess who’s 2nd with 507 yards? Colin Kaepernick.

And there’s one key difference as well; Kaepernick’s done it in less games.

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It might sound ridiculous to compare Kaepernick to a HOF QB like Young who was clearly far better in his era, but when it comes to postseason rushing stats, there’s a bit that can be compared. Even if we only include the games Young started in, that’s still 516 yards in 14 games, or 36.9 yards per game, well short of Kaepernick’s 84.5. Insane start.

Kaepernick also holds the record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single postseason game, and it should be obvious that it’s the 2012 NFC Divisional matchup against the Packers, where Kap ran for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’s also one of 6 quarterbacks to make the Super Bowl in his sophomore year (Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger accomplished this before him, and Russell Wilson accomplished this after).

Not bad for a QB many considered overhyped by Ron Jaworski.

Colin Kaepernick Passes The Eye Test In The Postseason

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There’s no sugarcoating here; I think Colin Kaepernick has had some of the greatest postseason performances in recent memory, and all 6 of his games have been quality. No bad games here.

It’s often said that the playoffs are all about big plays, and Kaepernick has made plenty of them during his time come January. In fact, I took the liberty of watching each postseason game. Below are the notes I took on each game.

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2012 Divisional Round Vs. Green Bay: While he started off ugly with a bad throw resulting in a Sam Shields pick six, Kaepernick put that completely behind him in one of the greatest postseason performances of the decade. With a sustained balance of scrambling and firing high velocity passes, consistently making good decisions and making some excellent throws, such as the one to Vernon Davis for 44 yards (1:26 3Q). In addition, Kap was an insane 7/11 on 3rd down conversions.

And yes, who could forget the 56-yard touchdown run? Excellent playoff debut.

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2012 NFC Championship at Atlanta: This game was a perfect summary of Kaepernick in general: He doesn’t always connect, but when he does, he makes it look perfect, such as the pass to Vernon Davis on the left side for 31 yards (7:33 3Q). His fastball pass to Walker (12:10 3Q) was also a beauty. Overall, while the gaudy rushing stats were missing, Kaepernick again played an insanely sharp game, staying on target while avoiding big mistakes. Another solid performance.

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2012 Super Bowl Against Baltimore: 5 yards away from giving the 49ers their 6th Super Bowl and capping off (no pun intended) an incredible 11-game run from Kaepernick. Despite throwing a pick late in the first half, Kap was impressively sharp in the 2nd half, where he lead a near comeback from a 28-6 deficit. His pass to Moss for 32 yards was beautiful (11:54 4Q), as was his fastball to Walker (1:06 2Q). This was a perfect example of Kap showcasing his outstanding arm strength, and he picked apart the Ravens defense in crunchtime before a goal-line stand ended the 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes. Nevertheless, Kaepernick led a valiant comeback effort, and an overall very good performance.

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2013 Wild Card Round at Green Bay: It seems like the Packers and 49ers always meet in the playoffs. After all, that’s what happened when Steve Young and Brett Favre were both on the field. And it seems like Kaepernick always plays really well against Green Bay. Such is the case here, where Kap once again showcased his scrambling abilities (4:16 2Q, 11:07 4Q, 1:07 4Q) and made impressive throws when it mattered, such as threading the needle to Davis for a 28-yard touchdown (10:32 4Q), or his deep pass to Crabtree for 31 yards (9:59 1Q). Another excellent job of picking apart the Packers defense.

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2013 Division Round at Carolina: The raw stats do not show it, but Kaepernick played amazingly against the Panthers, with plenty of gorgeous throws (13:43 1Q, 2:26 2Q, 12:43 3Q, 10:12 3Q) and superb decision making (12:37 1Q: 0:08 2Q, 8:53 3Q) at his disposable. Other than the occasional accuracy issues, Kap’s connections with his receivers and his scrambling were near flawless.

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2014 NFC Championship Game at Seattle: Another game where the raw stats do not do Kaepernick any justice. Sure, he threw 2 picks in the 4th quarter (his first one was abysmal), but he played a very strong first 3 quarters, constantly extending the play (13:08 2Q, 12:15 2Q, 6:30 3Q), as well as making the big-time throws (8:26 3Q, 13:30 3Q, 0:59 4Q). His 4th quarter performance was a mixed bag, but at least he was able to lead the 49ers inside the red zone on the final drive, which included a game saving throw across his body to Gore on 4th and 2 for 17 yards (1:54 4Q). And besides, this is the LOB we’re talking about. Kaepernick looked very impressive against the #1 defense for the most part, and it’s unfortunate it had to end in an interception in the end zone.

Conclusion

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Let me be clear; I’m not saying Colin Kaepernick is the greatest postseason quarterback of all time. I’m not sure if he’ll ever be in the discussion. I’m not sure if he can lead his team back to the playoffs, and if he does, I’m unsure if he can sustain what he has done in his first 6 postseason games.

What I am saying is that Kaepernick is very underrated when it comes to the postseason. After taking a long look at the film, I think his performances are up there with the likes of Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, or Tom Brady as far as the 2010s’. So while some 49ers fans continue complaining about bringing Alex Smith back, they should appreciate what Kaepernick has done for them come the postseason.

Perhaps it’s his personality that makes him an easy target, but for whatever reason, people just forget the excellent postseason performances or remain completely unaware of them. A guy like Kap gets bashed and criticized for not winning a Super Bowl, while a “winner” like Alex Smith gets a free pass for not taking San Francisco as far as Kaepernick did, and with less impressive results and style to boot.

There are enough guys that I would take in the playoffs to prevent Kaepernick from being considered a guy I would want to lead me to the playoffs. However, based on performance alone, he is indeed top 5. And to quote Ron Jaworski, I truly believe Colin Kaepernick has put up some of the greatest playoff performances in recent memory.

Who knows if Kaepernick can improve his flaws or get his team back to the playoffs? What should be obvious is that, for a time, during an era, he was one of the best active quarterbacks in the postseason.