by Cian Fahey
Why aren't we talking about Cam Newton?
It's easy to explain why the Carolina Panthers are largely being ignored despite their 3-0 record. The Panthers have beaten three bad teams (Jacksonville, Houston, and New Orleans), one of which didn't even have its regular starting quarterback on the field. It's not just that they have played bad teams, though. It's that their victories haven't been convincing. The Texans and Saints finished within one score of the Panthers, while the Jaguars were only beaten by 11 points because Blake Bortles threw a gift of an interception to Josh Norman that turned into a touchdown.
The Panthers roster isn't talented enough to draw attention while beating bad teams. The primary difference between the Panthers and the teams they have faced has been Cam Newton. Newton has dragged his team to victories by elevating his supporting cast on a consistent basis. He may not be playing the best football of his career, but considering the talent around him, it has to be close to that level.
Newton has thrown for 685 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions on 99 attempts. He is completing just 56.6 percent of his passes for 6.9 yards per attempt. As a runner, he has 31 carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Newton's numbers don't stand out, but when you consider on whom he is relying to create those numbers, they become dramatically more impressive.
Tight end Greg Olsen has accounted for 215 yards and two touchdowns on 15 receptions. Olsen is the only receiving option Newton has who should be playing the role that he is playing at this level of football. Ted Ginn, a player who is best suited to being a third or fourth receiver and special teams option, is next with 10 receptions for 188 yards and one touchdown. After Ginn, fullback Mike Tolbert checks in with six receptions for 38 yards. Corey Brown, an unreliable receiver who should be a borderline active/inactive option on game day, has five receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown. The declining Jerricho Cotchery has five receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown.
When the Panthers lost Kelvin Benjamin for the season because of an ACL tear, they weren't losing a great receiver. Nonetheless, they were losing the closest thing that Newton had to a viable starter, as rookie Devin Funchess needs time to adapt to the speed of the NFL and develop his skill set so that he can be consistent.
Having such porous receiving talent has handicapped Newton's ability to put up numbers in the passing game, but that's only one part of the offense that lacks talent. On the offensive line, Newton doesn't have offensive tackles who can be trusted to protect him. The Panthers have been forced to scheme around their pass protection, which in turn has put more pressure on Newton to perform. Having no pass protection and extremely limited receiving options should make the offense dysfunctional.
While it hasn't been spectacularly productive or efficient, it has been functional in spite of its available talent, ranking 18th in DVOA so far.
The above image is Newton's accuracy chart for the season so far. Although he has completed just 56.6 percent of his passes, his accuracy rate is an incredible 78.9 percent. The chart has 19 inaccurate throws and 71 accurate throws. It does not include spikes, intentional throwaways, obvious miscommunications between receiver and quarterback, or passes that are tipped at the line of scrimmage. The discrepancy between Newton's accuracy and his completion percentage is extremely high.
A couple of key factors create this gap. Most significantly, Newton's receivers have consistently failed to pull passes in despite receiving such quality service. This hasn't been solely about dropping the ball. (ESPN Stats & Information has only marked the Panthers with four drops so far this season.) Ted Ginn in particular has shown off an inability to adjust his routes to the coverage against which he is playing, while Jerricho Cotchery's lack of speed at this point in his career has made some precision passes appear overthrown despite being perfectly placed against the type of coverage he was facing.
Completion percentage is often viewed as a quarterback stat, with some onlookers showing enough awareness to also consider the impact the receivers have. Few people look past the receivers and quarterback to consider both the scheme and pass protection. Newton hasn't been getting many simple throws by design. Screens haven't been heavily incorporated into the offense, and a clear effort to split the field in half or get Newton out of the pocket after play-action hasn't been evident either.
Instead, Newton has largely spent this season working from inside the pocket -- often inside pockets that are unclean or tightened to the point that he has to make throws just as he is being hit, or with defensive lineman in position to tip the ball as he releases it.
The Panthers passing game is inefficient. They would obviously prefer that it becomes more efficient, but what matters most is that they stop squandering big-play opportunities that Newton creates.
In the above play from Week 1 against the Jaguars, Newton drops back in the pocket and manipulates the safety with his eyes while he steps up to avoid edge pressure. His process in the pocket holds the deep coverage to the middle of the field, creating a huge amount of space and time for Ginn down the right sideline. Newton's pass wasn't perfect, but it was accurate and the receiver had a huge amount of time to stop and locate the ball because of how Newton worked in the pocket.
The receiver dropped what should have been an easy 35-yard touchdown pass.
This play comes from the second quarter against the Jaguars. Newton attempts an extremely difficult throw and puts the ball in almost a perfect spot for the receiver to run underneath it. Even during his prime this would have been a difficult play for Jerricho Cotchery to make, but at this stage of his career it's almost impossible. Newton's pass was near-perfect and accurate, but Cotchery's limitations reduced him to a desperate, stiff lunge forward with his upper body as the ball landed just out of his reach.
Cotchery struggles to beat man coverage at this point of his career, but the setup of the Panthers offense often asks him to run routes downfield against that kind of coverage.
On this play from the Texans game in Week 2, Newton appears to understand early on where he wants to go with the ball. He understands the coverage and initially has his eyes on Ginn as he advances in his route. Newton realizes there is a linebacker in his passing lane, so he moves his eyes and pump-fakes before quickly turning back to Ginn and releasing the ball downfield. Newton's pass lands 17 yards away from the line of scrimmage from a deep drop with perfect accuracy.
The ball bounces off Ginn's chest.
Newton has two interceptions this season. One came on an awful decision against the Jaguars when he forced the ball into triple coverage. His pass didn't get by the first defender, and his receiver wouldn't have had a chance even if it had. The above play is Newton's other interception. It came against the Texans late in the second quarter. Newton throws a perfect pass to Kevin Norwood downfield, but the former Seattle Seahawks draft pick couldn't make what should be seen as a routine reception.
This was an extremely impressive play from Newton. He held the ball for as long as he could and found the open receiver, before releasing the ball with clean mechanics despite the incoming hit from a defensive lineman.
In the above play from this past week's game against the Saints, Newton throws receiver Devin Funchess open downfield. He shows off outstanding arm talent to control the trajectory, velocity and placement of his pass, dropping it right over the defender who was covering the rookie receiver. Funchess can't pull the ball in, and it drops right through his outstretched arms. While this may not necessarily be considered a drop, it's a play the receiver should have made.
Against the Saints this past weekend, Newton was able to throw for more than 300 yards simply because his receivers were catching the ball more consistently down the field.
The Panthers don't have receiving options who can consistently catch the ball, create separation, or make contested catches. This puts pressure on Newton to not only play to an extremely high level, but to do so repeatedly. Newton has to make these types of throws on a regular basis for the offense to function to any respectable degree. Doing this in ideal conditions is tough for even the best quarterbacks in the league, Newton is doing it in conditions that are the complete opposite of ideal.
When you casually watch the Panthers play, it's easy to miss how poor their offensive line has played. It's not like watching the Dolphins, Vikings, Colts, or Seahawks offensive lines, units that disintegrate on a regular basis. The Panthers offensive line appears more sturdy because of the team's play-calling.
Not only does Newton's running ability allow offensive coordinator Mike Shula to consistently move the point of attack so opposing front sevens are more hesitant, but it also makes teams more reluctant to aggressively blitz the quarterback. Shula uses Newton's athleticism, but he has also showed off an understanding of his team's limitations in pass protection by repeatedly using seven-man protections to give Newton time. Newton gets time on these plays, but the trade-off is that has fewer receivers running routes downfield.
In the above play from the fourth quarter of the Jaguars game, the Panthers keep a running back and tight end in for pass protection. The tight end fails to execute his assignment, meaning that the pass protection still leaves a defender unblocked. Newton has time in the pocket because that defender has to loop around the center before coming free. Even with that time, he still has to make a quick coverage read and release the ball earlier than he would have liked because he has so few options downfield.
Against the Texans, the Panthers had to use seven-man protections just to compete with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney upfront. Even against the Saints, a team with very limited pass-rushing talent, the offense had to take this approach at times. In the above play, the Saints rush just four players after the quarterback while the Panthers have seven in pass protection. Newton works through his first two reads to the right side, sees that both are covered, then quickly looks at the middle of the field to the backside crossing route.
Even with that time in the pocket, Newton has to fit the ball into a relatively tight window because of the seven-man protection. His throw is perfect as it drops over the linebacker and underneath the deep safety.
When the Panthers do ask their offensive line to play in more space, multiple players struggle to be effective, but none are so disastrous as left tackle Michael Oher. Oher already has his own highlight reel for this season.
Playing this well behind a blindside protector playing as poorly as Oher shouldn't be sustainable for Newton. He will undoubtedly break down as the season goes on and the blindside hits he takes pile up. Against better teams, it will be much more difficult for Newton to drag his teammates through games the way he has to this point. That's not to say that he can't do it or that it has been easy to do it to this point; rather that there's typically only so much an individual can do for a whole team, even at the quarterback position.
Through three weeks of the season, it's hard to find a quarterback who is playing better than Newton. He is comfortably on the level of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Brady is outproducing him and Rodgers is still the most talented quarterback in the league playing to a high level, but Newton has been as close to flawless as could be rationally expected. That interception against the Jaguars stands out and he was fortunate to avoid another interception against the Texans, but those are the only two major negatives against him at this point.
Newton has developed into a refined pocket passer with the athleticism to diversify any offense. The Panthers have done an atrocious job of building around him, but his talent as an individual is undeniable.