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And the NFL's Most Overrated Player Heading into 2012 Is…

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And the NFL's Most Overrated Player Heading into 2012 Is…
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“He’s overrated.” 

This common phrase is thrown around often to describe athletes, but most of the time it is misused. To be overrated, a player must receive praise that exceeds his actual merit and value.

How can Tim Tebow be voted the most overrated player in the league when almost no one says he’s any good? Tony Romo finished second in that 2011 poll voted on by the players, and he is another quarterback hit with ridicule more than admiration.

The line is being crossed between overrated and over-hyped. The latter describes someone like Tebow — a player who receives a large amount of attention when he really does not deserve it — while the players that are overrated are usually media darlings with critics wearing blinders, overlooking their flaws.

As we head into the 2012 season, there is one player that fits the definition of overrated the best. This is where the performance and accomplishments fail to match the absurd praise and respect.

We must put a speed limit on the Cam Newton bandwagon before it goes out of control.

 

The league’s need for superstars

First let me start by saying I do not have anything against Cam Newton. I do not think he has a fake smile. My interests as a NFL fan lie in the AFC. The more franchise quarterbacks that enter the league, the better the product is to enjoy. 

Cam Newton has not done anything to make me hate him, which is the problem.

A lot of the vitriol people feel for players stems from envy of their great achievements. Hardly anyone hates the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, because they have rarely been good enough to resent. Now bring up the New England Patriots, and you are assured to get a lot of negative responses based on the last dozen years.

People hate winners, and Newton is not yet a winner in the NFL. Yet from the praise, you would think he was. That is the fallacy created for the superstar-in-training.

When you are the first overall pick of the draft, there is an instant amount of fame that comes with that distinction. They get the biggest rookie contract, endorsement deals, the most headlines, and the league is ready to milk this player for all they are (potentially) worth.

Over-hyped? Absolutely, but that comes with the territory of every No. 1 pick. Still, no one ever tried saying JaMarcus Russell was any good in the league. The overrated status does not begin until the player does the most minimal of achievements, and that is when the league kicks into “superstar building” mode.

Despite being the ultimate team game, superstars carry the NFL. No casual fan wanted to watch the Indianapolis Colts last season without Peyton Manning, but add Andrew Luck and things are looking up.

When the superstar plays the key position of quarterback, then that makes it even easier to promote. Not to mention when it is a dual-threat quarterback, like Newton. People have been dying to see that ultimate, unstoppable quarterback succeed: the one that can dominate games on a consistent basis with his mind, his arm, and his legs.

How else do you explain Michael Vick, one of the most overrated players in NFL history, getting as many huge contracts as he has in his career?

When you can realistically watch a NFL show, hear criticism for Tony Romo over playoff failures and a lack of leadership, followed by respect for Vick — a convicted criminal who is still holding a 2-3 postseason record — in the same episode, you know something is wrong.

Those rags-to-riches success stories are great. Everyone knows what Kurt Warner did, and some thought Tony Romo might have turned out the same way. But when that player fails to win big in a hurry, it is much easier to toss them aside like garbage. That’s where they started out anyway, right?

If the player’s a superstar, we give them much more leeway. Consider it another perk.

A decade after Vick went No. 1 overall in 2001, Newton follows in his footsteps. But if he wants to go down in history as a truly great player, rather than a product of hype, then he must be capable of making his own path.

Not the one the league is trying to sell us so far.

 

The case for Newton as most overrated

You will not find any shortage of glowing esteem for Newton (except maybe here). He was the highest-ranked rookie on the NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2012 list. Ranked No. 40, Newton was ahead of players such as Peyton Manning (No. 50) and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford (No. 41).

After the show, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal had a puff piece on Newton already being better than Stafford. The reasoning was confined to one paragraph:

This isn't about Newton's potential. He's already a superior quarterback. Newton showed the ability to stand tall in the pocket, like a veteran, and deliver with pressure in his face. He's a good progression reader. Stafford has also made great strides in these areas, but Newton's running skills put him over the top. Newton may be the best goal-line back in football.

Standing tall in the pocket? Good progression reader? Okay. Stafford dropped back 721 times last season and only ran 22 times. Newton was far more likely to take off (126 rushes), and was over one percent more likely to be sacked on a play.

According to STATS LLC, Newton had a passer rating of just 14.7 while under pressure, compared to 56.9 for Stafford. To throw for 5,038 yards like Stafford, you have to be elite at reading your progressions.

No one is arguing the running skills. Not yet anyway.

NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah advanced the Newton conversation. First, he suggested Newton could have video game numbers of 30 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns in a season.

Then after polling 10 front office executives, seven of them concluded Newton was currently a top 10 quarterback, and someone from the AFC even said he was a top three guy.

Remember, we are talking about a rookie quarterback from a 6-10 team, who only managed to beat teams that were 5-11 (twice), 2-14, 4-12 (twice), and 10-6. The 40th best player in the league? The sixth best quarterback (or third best in one’s mind)?

Another Jeremiah piece (hey, it’s a long offseason to fill) focused on the concept of picking a quarterback for one season, one game and one play. In the discussion of one play, NFL Network host Andrew Siciliano mentions (see 6:00 mark in video) that Cam Newton was second in the league last year on fourth down completion percentage. He was five out of seven.

Yes, completion percentage and a sample size of seven plays. Never mind that one of those completions was a four-yard gain on 4th and 5 with the game on the line in Week 1. Hopefully no one is buying into such a stat when they hear it.

Speaking of stats, that is where we are going to look at Cam Newton’s rookie season in great detail.

 

Misleading Statistics

As you can see, the Cam Newton bandwagon is picking up a lot of steam in recent weeks. When San Francisco’s Alex Smith went on the attack of passing yards per game and mentioned Newton’s losing record, it created a little storm in the media.

It was refreshing to hear a player speak so candidly about statistics:

"This is the honest truth: I could absolutely care less on yards per game," Smith said Wednesday, via the San Francisco Chronicle. "I think that's a totally overblown stat. Because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what? You're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half and, yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games, that's great. You're not winning, though."

Newton was 0-3 last season when he passed for over 300 yards in a game. His six highest games in passing yards were all losses. Newton was 5-1 in the six games where he had his fewest passing yards.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Smith also went on to mention that winning teams usually are running the ball in the fourth quarter, making it difficult to put up big passing numbers. 

At the end of the day, people fell in love with Newton’s volume stats, and ignored efficiency. That is the cardinal sin with football statistics, and Smith mentioning it would have concluded a perfect interview.

If Newton was more efficient in 2011, the Panthers would have won more games.

Yes, Newton set rookie records with 4,051 yards passing (surpassing Peyton Manning), and 432 yards in a single game (beating out Stafford). He threw 21 touchdowns and ran for 14 more, setting a new single-season record for a quarterback in rushing touchdowns.

That’s all fine and dandy, but consider the passing onslaught of a season we had last year:

  • The average game had 44.36 points scored; the highest number since 1965 (46.1)
  • Teams averaged the second most pass attempts (34.0) and pass completions (20.4) per game in NFL history.
  • All-time record-highs were set in gross passing yards per game (244.8) and net passing yards per game (229.7).
  • The league-wide yards per attempt (YPA) was 7.20, which is the highest since 1965.

There has never been a season where racking up the passing yards was as easy as 2011. New single-season league records were set for the most 300-yard passing games (121), 400-yard passing games (18), 4,500-yard passers (6), 5,000-yard passers (3), and a record three quarterbacks threw at least 40 touchdown passes.

Newton may have missed some offseason practice time due to the lockout, but league-wide defenses were in shambles, leading to a lot of blown coverages, big plays, and huge passing numbers early in the season.

In the first five weeks of the 2011 season, a quarterback threw for at least 400 yards 10 times. It did not happen again until Week 12. Defenses finally started to settle down in the middle of October.

So is it any surprise Newton had his three largest passing games in the first four weeks? He passed for 422 yards in his debut, followed by 432 yards against Green Bay, and then 374 yards in Week 4 at Chicago. Newton never surpassed 290 yards the rest of the season.

When you have that early-season success with flashy volume numbers, and you are the No. 1 overall pick, you can see why the hype machine would start building. But people were focusing on the wrong numbers.

Here is where Newton ranked in several measures of passing efficiency last season: 18th in completion percentage (60.0 percent), 10th in yards per attempt (7.84), and 15th in passer rating (84.5).

Furthermore, we can look at more advanced stats to judge his statistical value.

  • Newton ranked 15th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR, and 16th in DVOA. The latter is a measure of value per play.
  • At Advanced NFL Stats, Newton ranked 15th in Win Probability Added per Game, 10th in Expected Points Added per Play, and 17th in Success Rate.
  • Pro Football Focus had Newton as the 13th highest-graded QB in 2011, but a lot of that was due to his superiority running the ball. Based purely on passing, Newton was ranked 29th (or 23rd if using players that played at least half their team’s snaps).
  • In its first year, ESPN’s Total QBR had Newton (56.6) as the 16th highest QB in 2011.

 

That makes his season look a lot more average in comparison to his peers. It puts him more in the conversation for 13th-16th best rather than top 10 or higher. Passing numbers were off the charts last year, while Newton’s ultimately were not.

Just one group of these stats considers the quality of opposing defense, and that is Football Outsiders’ DYAR and DVOA (the “D” stands for defense-adjusted).  If you played in the NFC South last year, as Drew Brees can attest to, then you got to play a soft schedule filled with bad defenses.

Last season, 10 of Carolina’s games were against defenses ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring defense. In the six games against defenses ranked in the top half (only Houston and Tennessee were in the top 10), Newton had a 2-4 record, 56.3 completion percentage, 6.41 yards per attempt, and a 79.0 passer rating.

Cumulative defensive passer rating for Newton’s opponents was 86.7. That makes his 84.5 passer rating a bit below average. Adjusting for how he did against each opponent, his season is below average, making his opponents’ passer ratings cumulatively decrease by 1.02. The lower the defensive passer rating, the better it is for the defense, not the passer.

Newton’s turnover rate was impressive at 3.24 percent on 678 drop backs. He only fumbled five times, losing two. Interceptions were more of a problem, with 17 on the season. He had three red zone interceptions, and a total of seven interceptions with the ball inside the opponent’s 40 (scoring range).

Another reason to be concerned with Newton’s efficiency is his 60.0 completion percentage. Though not poor, it was heavily inflated by him completing 90 of 113 passes (79.6 percent) that were thrown behind the line of scrimmage. Think screens, dump passes, check downs, etc.

While there is no denying Newton has the ability to throw accurate passes down the field, his reliance on the short passes to make up for shortcomings in the intermediate game is something to keep an eye on. The best quarterbacks in the game are not throwing that short that often like Newton did last season.

When people talk about Newton having “great” stats last year, they are talking about a few volume numbers. But volume does not win like efficiency does in the NFL, and Newton proved that again last season.

 

What about those rushing touchdowns?

While we spent most of the time looking at passing statistics (that is the primary job of a quarterback after all), what about Newton’s rushing numbers?

Newton rushes for one of three touchdowns vs. Tampa Bay (Source: Daniel Wallace, TIMES)

He had 706 yards on the ground, and no doubt is a threat to scramble for first downs and big plays. His 49-yard touchdown run against Tampa Bay was one of the highlight runs of the season.

The part that irks me is the praise for Newton’s record-setting 14 touchdown runs. This was a record made on opportunity and unusual circumstances. It’s really a bit of a sham.

Most touchdown runs in the NFL are short, and Newton’s were no exception. He rushed for six touchdowns that went one yard. Another went for two yards, meaning half of his touchdown runs were one-to-two yards.

What’s incredible is how many chances Newton was given, despite the Panthers featuring two quality running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. This was not Tim Couch being stuck with Terry Kirby and Karim Abdul-Jabbar in the backfield.

Newton had 39 carries in the red zone last season, which were triple the amount of the next highest quarterback. 

Inside the 10-yard line, the Panthers ran the ball 41 times last season. The distribution of carries was slanted to the quarterback in the most unusual of ways. The “Avg. Yds to GL” are the average yards the ball was spotted from the end zone when the runner got a carry.

Carolina's distribution of carries inside the 10-yard line

On four occasions, Newton was given two straight carries inside the 3-yard line to score a rushing touchdown. Twice it was two cracks from the 1-yard line. With the success rate of New England’s quarterback sneak, even Tom Brady would rush for at least 10 touchdowns if his offense called his number the way Carolina did for Newton.

Most teams just hand these plays off to the running back. It should now come as no surprise Newton (14) had more rushing touchdowns than the rest of his team (12). Williams had to score five touchdown runs of at least 22 yards last season, because he only had the ball seven times inside the 10.

As for Newton being "the best goal-line back in football", consider that Tim Tebow has scored nine career rushing touchdowns on 11 carries inside the 10-yard line (81.8 percent). Newton has nine touchodwns too, but on 23 carries (39.1 percent). He's not even better than Tebow.

Newton could become the league’s best overall rushing quarterback, but his touchdown total is an inflated reward for atypical opportunity. 

 

Newton was poor at situational football

After proving that Newton’s volume stats are inflated, now let’s take a look at what really matters: situational football, and why Newton’s poor performance led to a 6-10 record.

There are a lot of quarterbacks in this league that can rack up the yards and touchdowns on any given Sunday, but situational football is where the elite signal callers separate themselves from the “Hollow Man” who only finishes with the good stat line.

Newton was no stranger to playing the “Hollow Man” last season. That is part of the reason why he had so many volume stats, but not wins.

Third downs are always a big one. Newton converted 38.9 percent of his third down plays in 2011. That includes passing, times sacked, and rushing (excluding one kneel down).

The 38.9 percent is not a horrible number for a rookie, but it’s nowhere close to elite status. Incredibly, Newton scrambled 42 times on third down, gaining 24 first downs rushing. That is a 57.1 percent success rate on rushing plays. Even Michael Vick has never exceeded 40 runs on third down in a season.

For Newton, only 41 of his 65 third-down completions (63.1 percent) produced a first down. The best quarterbacks are in the 70’s on that number.

Newton was at his best early in games in 2011.

In the first half of games, Newton threw 259 passes and had a 95.6 passer rating. In the second half, he threw a near-identical 258 passes, but had a 73.5 passer rating. Likewise, his rating drops for the first three quarters: 102.4 (1st), 90.0 (2nd), 65.5 (3rd), and 78.4 (4th).

As the games went on, Newton got worse. This helps to explain the miserable 1-8 record Newton and the Panthers had in fourth quarter comeback opportunities last season. They played a lot of close games, but they almost lost all of them.

 

Newton's 4QC/GWD opportunities vs. all other drives

Newton’s stats were down in these critical situations, and more importantly the team struggled to score. They produced 23 points on 21 drives (1.10 points per drive), which is a far cry from the usual scoring production they had last season in all other situations (2.42 points per drive).

Obviously it was not all Newton’s fault. Olindo Mare had a bad year in the clutch field goal department, missing three big kicks for the Panthers. The defense also blew a late lead to New Orleans after Newton had put them ahead with a touchdown earlier in the quarter.

But putting it all together, you can see how the lack of strong situational play hurt Newton’s season. It caused him to lose games, but a lot of it was masked by the volume numbers he had in defeat.

While everyone was blown away by his big-play passing debut in Arizona, Newton had a chance to lead his first big game-tying drive and failed. Needing a touchdown in the final minutes, Newton drove the offense 81 yards, but his fourth-down pass was a yard short, ending the drive. It was a play reminiscent of Steve McNair’s pass to Kevin Dyson in the Super Bowl. For the game, Newton was just three of 11 (27.3 percent) at converting third downs.

Newton at Arizona (Week 1)

A week later Newton again got attention for his big passing totals; setting a rookie record with 432 yards passing against Green Bay. But it was not a good game by Newton. He threw three interceptions and struggled mightily in the red zone. Down 23-16 in the fourth quarter, Newton was sacked on a 3rd-and-1 play at the GB 3, and then scrambled for three worthless yards on a crucial 4th-and-4 play.

Two plays later the Packers scored a touchdown, and led 30-16 with 2:14 left. Newton would put together an 83-yard touchdown drive, but it was too little, too late. The 77 passing yards on the drive enabled him to have a “record day”, but it was not a strong performance at all.

Newton’s third big stat game early in the season, Week 4 at Chicago, saw him throw a pick six early in the first quarter. Down 24-23 in the fourth quarter, Newton threw three straight incompletions, and Olindo Mare missed a tough 52-yard field goal. On their next drive, Carolina went three and out, with Newton completing a 3-yard pass on 3rd and 8. Finally, with the game on the line, Newton had a drive with five of the six drop backs being unsuccessful. Down 34-23 with just over a minute left, Newton put together a 77-yard drive to again help accumulate more volume stats in a loss.

Only twice did the Panthers get blown out in 2011. The worst game came in Tennessee (Week 10). Newton had four failed completions for 41 yards on third down. He also had three failed runs for 14 yards. The plays are “failed” because they were on third down and did not produce a first down or help lead to any points. Carolina lost 30-3.

Newton’s incredible 2010 season at Auburn where he won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship was sparked by his ability to lead big drives. He led seven game-winning drives that season for the Tigers, including one to complete a 24-point comeback against Alabama, and the game-winning drive in the championship game against Oregon.

That kind of poise rarely showed up in the NFL last year. If Newton can take some solace from early struggles in the clutch, look no further than Peyton Manning. He also had a rookie season with a 1-8 record in game-winning drive opportunities (1-6 at comebacks). But in his second season, he led seven game-winning drives, the Colts finished 13-3, and their era of success begun.

That’s what Newton can only hope to duplicate. That’s his potential; not achievement.

 

Reality vs. Perception: Ryan, Stafford and Newton

Two of the interesting sub-plots to that Top 100 list are that Matt Ryan did not make it, and that Newton was a spot ahead of Matthew Stafford. Without having to go into detail, it is absurd to suggest Newton is further along than either quarterback.

When someone says Newton had the best rookie season ever (really, Peter King?), in addition to Dan Marino (1983) and Ben Roethlisberger (2004), I would remind them it’s not even the best rookie quarterback season in the NFC South’s existence.

Matt Ryan took a team that was in great turmoil thanks to the Vick and Bobby Petrino fiasco's, and they were 11-5 and in the playoffs his rookie year. He averaged a high yards per attempt just like Newton, and the difference in wins was heavily based on Ryan’s four game-winning drives. Efficiency beats volume again.

Carolina improved by four games over their 2-14 finish in 2010, but does anyone really look down upon what Cam was working with last season?

Steve Smith is one of the best No. 1 receivers in the league; great at yards after catch and deep balls. The offensive line is solid with players like Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. He had a pair of decent tight ends in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. Then of course the proven backfield duo of Williams and Stewart. Not bad at all.

What’s most interesting is the perception around these quarterbacks; two who are No. 1 overall picks, and Matt Ryan (No. 3) was the first quarterback taken in 2008.

Ryan has led the Falcons to four consecutive winning seasons and three playoff appearances. Before he was drafted and Mike Smith was hired, the Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons. Ryan has led 16 game-winning drives in his career.

Yet, where does the snub come from? It’s because Ryan has not won a playoff game in his four years. He’s 0-3 without any solid performances.

Stafford had to shake the “injury prone” label after he missed 19 games his first two seasons. Last year he started every game and finally had his chance to shine with 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns and some incredible comebacks to lead Detroit to 10-6 and the playoffs.

Yet, Stafford could have a better 2012 by being more efficient, but get less respect for it since he already “arrived” last year. Since people look mostly at counting numbers, a season with 4,200 yards and 35 touchdowns would be considered a down year for Stafford, even if he cut down his attempts and turnovers (increased efficiency) in the process. That’s not fair.

Then you have Newton. He gets the (justified) pass for losing this past season on a bad overall team. He gets the pass on losing a large amount of close games, which is understandable to a degree. He gets way too much credit for his inflated statistics.

Yet, his 2011 bar was set low enough to where he can jump up to 4,500 yards and 30 touchdown passes, win a few more games, and he will get more credit than these other two quarterbacks even though he is only approaching what they have already done in the past.

Newton just better hopes he wins a playoff game within two years, or else he will be passed over for the likes of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. The cycle never ends.

 

The thing you do not want to assume

Do not assume Newton will automatically be a better player in 2012. While I will not advocate the “sophomore slump”, the fact is any player is open to either a decline or rise in year two.

Some people actually believed Rick Mirer was a legitimate quarterback after 1993, and we know how that turned out. Similarly, Sam Bradford’s rookie season was largely overrated, as Chase Stuart expertly points out. How did last year turn out? Bradford has thrown 7 TD, 12 INT in his last 15 games (3-12 record).

How about the aforementioned Matt Ryan? One could argue his rookie season is still his best in the league.

There’s also this: running quarterbacks often have early success that they fail to sustain.

Kordell Stewart was borderline incredible in 1997, his first season as a starter. He passed for 21 touchdowns and rushed for 11 more in leading the Steelers to the AFC Championship. The next three years? He was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league and nearly got Bill Cowher fired.

Michael Vick’s best season in Atlanta was the first year he started in 2002. While he still had the highlight-worthy runs, he had his best passing season under Dan Reeves with 2,936 yards and an 81.6 passer rating. We did not see this type of dual-threat success from Vick again until 2010 in Philadelphia.

Vince Young managed to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2006 after going 8-5 as a starter. He had four fourth quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives. Only two years later the Titans were off to the best record in the league behind Kerry Collins. Young killed a dream in Philadelphia and is now trying to back up Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo.

The running quarterback is still an unorthodox threat for defenses after all these years. Even Tim Tebow’s early-career success can be attributed to defenses not being sure how to defend him.

Of course scrambling a lot is an easy way to get hurt. But their biggest flaw goes back to the lack of a consistent passing threat. Newton threw for a lot of yards, scrambled for a lot of yards, but let’s not call the guy Steve Young just yet. There is a lot of room for improvement to get to that level.

 

Conclusion

The best thing Newton has done for Carolina is give them hope that they finally have a franchise quarterback. The best thing he did on the field last year was produce enough offense to keep his team competitive in nearly every game they played.

That is all great, but do not fall for the trap. Just because a player is the No. 1 pick, threw for a lot of empty yards and rushed for a lot of opportunistic touchdowns, it does not mean he has catapulted himself into being one of the best quarterbacks and players in the league.

Hype is going to be there. That’s expected. Praise and respect? Please, save that for someone when his accomplishments actually merit it.

One day Cam Newton may deservingly be one of the highest rated players in the NFL. For now, as we draw closer to 2012, he is the league’s most overrated player.

 

Follow me on Twitter @CaptainComeback

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