Why Cam Newton's NFL Record for QB Rushing Touchdowns Is a Fluke

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Why Cam Newton's NFL Record for QB Rushing Touchdowns Is a Fluke
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
We should see more of Cam Newton throwing the ball in 2012. Especially in the red zone.

One of Cam Newton's popular rookie accomplishments is also one of the central arguments I used against him last month when I said he was the most overrated player heading into the 2012 season.

It’s those captivating, record-breaking but also opportunistic and context-free rushing touchdowns.

Newton had 14 of them last year, setting a new single-season NFL record for a quarterback. It led some to suggest that Newton may be the league’s best goal-line back.

Whether you are a fan of the Carolina Panthers, fantasy football or football in general, this record provides us a great stage to look at what is wrong with the way certain statistics are glorified without context in the NFL.

 

A Real-Life Analogy

Consider this all-too-realistic story.

Two guys—let’s call them Cam and Tim to make it easier—take their girlfriends out to the state fair one evening. After the girls spot some ridiculously oversized stuffed animal they just had to have, the group decides to play a game of throwing balls at a pyramid of milk bottles on a stool.

After paying a dollar for three balls, Tim winds up his first throw. After an eternity, his throw misses the entire stool by three yards.

But on his second throw, he takes down two of the bottles, and he cleans up the last with his third throw.

Yay. He wins a forgettable prize. Now it is Cam’s turn.

His first two throws do no harm to the bottles, but he finally takes down two of the bottles with his last throw. He wins a smaller prize.

Tim is a charitable guy, so he decides to give it another shot. This time he knocks down all the bottles with one thunderous heave. He wins the ultimate prize (think Google’s first image result for “huge stuffed animal”). Saving the rest of his dollars for church envelopes, Tim reached his goal for the night.

Not to be outdone and embarrassed in front of his date, Cam had to redeem himself. After using all three balls, he finally knocks down all the milk bottles. He also wins a big prize.

For some reason, Cam decides to spend another dollar, and he ends up knocking down two more bottles for another prize.

After Cam finally gets his fill, the final count is Tim knocking down six bottles on four throws to Cam knocking down seven bottles on nine throws.

The couples go their own way for the rest of the night.

Cam leaves his prizes in the trunk as he spends the night, while Tim carries the giant teddy bear into his girlfriend’s room before leaving abruptly.

 

Volume vs. Efficiency

The preceding story was a lighthearted look at volume versus efficiency.

Yes, Cam knocked down more bottles and won more prizes, but at what cost? He had to spend a dollar more than Tim and needed five more throws just to hit one more bottle.

That is neither efficient nor superior.

The story is also similar to what actually happened in the NFL last season. Cam Newton had nine rushing touchdowns on 23 carries from inside his opponents' 10-yard lines. That is a touchdown rate of 39.1 percent.

Meanwhile, Tim Tebow was 4-of-7 (57.1 percent) in the same situation, which makes you wonder why he did not run more often when he was deep in the red zone.

When adding his 2010 season and last year’s playoffs, Tebow is 10-for-13 at scoring touchdowns on runs from inside the 10.

That is 76.9 percent, which nearly doubles Newton's rate.

And one of Tebow's "failures" was a two-yard loss against Minnesota last year when he simply fell on the ball to set up the winning field goal. That play should be discarded from the stats.

Tebow was also 2-for-2 at running on two-point conversions in 2011, so you could think of his goal-line running numbers as 12-for-14 (85.7 percent) if you really wanted to. It's easy to see why Jason Lisk of Big Lead Sports wrote that the New York Jets should consider going for two in most situations this season.

Keep in mind that Newton’s 39 red-zone carries were triple the amount of the next closest quarterback in 2011 (Tebow, who had 13). That also means his 16 carries from opponents' 11- through 19-yard lines are three more than any quarterback had in the entire red zone (from the 20-yard line in). All but one of Newton’s touchdown runs were from his opponents' 1- to 16-yard lines.

Newton has clearly not been as effective as Tebow at running with the ball inside the 10, but since he has done it more often, he has a greater volume of touchdowns.

 

Newton vs. Other Running Quarterbacks

Even though Tebow has performed better in this area, we reward the more inefficient player with the praise just because of his volume.

Since people love counting numbers, Newton’s 14 rushing touchdowns are an eye-catching delight.

But even the most basic statistical analysis shows something is clearly not right about his record.

Rushing touchdowns in general for a quarterback have a lot of randomness to them, and you do not see consistent totals on a year-to-year basis.

The main reason for this is that most quarterbacks are all about throwing the ball, and that remains true even at the 1-yard line. The runs often go to the running backs, but that was not the case for the 2011 Carolina Panthers.

Many of the great touchdown runs by a quarterback were on plays not even designed for them to run.

The previous record-holder for quarterback rushing touchdowns was Steve Grogan, who had 12 with the New England Patriots in 1976 (his second year as a pro). He did it on 60 carries. In 1977, he had just one touchdown on 61 carries. His next-closest seasons were five touchdowns in 1978 and three touchdowns in 1975.

Grogan was a decent quarterback and could scramble early in his career, but he was never an elite runner or player. His season of 12 touchdowns was simply an anomaly in his 16-year career with the Patriots.

Did Grogan forget how to find the end zone after his second season, or was his 1976 record the product of rare opportunities from the coaching staff?

I was unable to find advanced data on Grogan’s season, so I looked at the active quarterbacks (players on a 2012 roster) with the most career rushing touchdowns. The Pro-Football-Reference play index generates an interesting list of nine names (career regular-season rushing touchdowns listed in parentheses).

  • Michael Vick (33) is the all-time leader in rushing yards by a quarterback (5,219 yards). He is arguably the best running quarterback in NFL history.
  • Peyton Manning (17) and Tom Brady (10) are two of the all-time best pocket passers.
  • Aaron Rodgers (16) and Ben Roethlisberger (14) are two examples of quarterbacks that can run but usually still look to pass when out of the pocket.
  • Vince Young (12) is similar to Cam Newton (14), though Newton is a more physical runner and appears to be much further along as a passer.
  • Mark Sanchez (12) and Tim Tebow (12) give the New York Jets a lot of options in the red zone this year.

I found data for rushing from inside opponents' 10-yard lines for these nine quarterbacks and added one more season: Kordell Stewart’s breakout 1997 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Stewart threw 21 touchdowns and ran for 11 more, which is still tied for the third-highest total in NFL history. In 1998, Stewart would rush for just two scores, and the second-highest total of his career was seven touchdowns (2000).

I also discovered another error in how statistical services crunch their numbers. The Elias Sports Bureau handles data for ESPN, so when you look at Cam Newton’s splits for 2011, you are looking at data from Elias.

At the bottom they have a section for field position, and the last row is “OPP 10-GOAL,” and they have both passing and rushing data.

I found out that for the runs, if the line of scrimmage is exactly the 10-yard line, then they do not count that play in the split, even though they clearly should.

With that in mind, I made the adjustment for all runs from 10 yards out, and I also excluded those irrelevant kneel-downs. Only regular-season data was used.

The New York Jets have themselves an interesting combo at the top here. Tebow really does not make a huge improvement there, as Sanchez has been effective already at running the ball close to the end zone.

Rodgers and Roethlisberger have almost identical numbers. You would have expected the same for Manning and Brady, but after getting rid of the kneel-downs (13 for Peyton; seven for Brady), Manning has been more likely to get it in the end zone. Of Brady’s 10 career rushing touchdowns, nine of them have been from one to three yards out.

Stewart’s 1997 season is an interesting comparison to Newton’s 2011.

Distribution of carries from 1-10 yard line (97 Steelers vs. 11 Panthers)

Stewart scored on half of his attempts and did not get as high of a percentage of his team’s carries. His average run also came nearly a full yard further out from the end zone than Newton’s, and only once did the Steelers give him back-to-back carries (Newton had five such series in 2011). Stewart had five one-yard touchdowns compared to six for Newton.

Finally, you have the cluster of Newton, Vick and Young, each under 40.0 percent, at the bottom.

It is surprising to see them here, as generally you would think of them among the best running quarterbacks in recent NFL history.

Perhaps it could be that Vick and Young are faster runners and get more long touchdowns. Young has five of his 12 touchdowns from at least 19 yards out. Vick has 12 touchdowns from at least 11 yards away, though that career percentage is nearly identical to Newton’s 2011.

Could high volume be the reason?

After Newton’s 23 carries, the second-highest total was 11, by Rodgers in 2010. Only Vick (10 in 2010) had more than eight in any season. Daunte Culpepper, who was not included above, had 19 such carries in 2002, when he scored nine touchdowns.

If Peyton Manning had 10-plus carries a year, would he still score the same percentage of touchdowns by not even averaging two carries a season? Probably not. However, if a few more of those handoffs that used to go to Edgerrin James stayed in his hands, there is no question he would have raised his rushing touchdown total.

Though if Newton had a more normal 10 or 11 carries at this distance and scored touchdowns at the same rate, then he would have been fortunate to finish 2011 with a total of 10 rushing touchdowns.

That would not be good for second place, let alone the league record.

 

Carolina Coaches Must Protect Newton Better

Newton’s volume is on the coaching staff, and my response to all of this volume is simple.

So what?

Play-calling and decision-making by the quarterback directly plays into this. When looking at Newton’s 23 carries from 10 yards out at most, I found that 19 of them were designed runs.

That means that only four times Newton actually scrambled.

The Panthers used a variety of quarterback draws, zone-read options, bootlegs and flat-out kamikaze dives to the end zone with Newton keeping the ball all the way. They force-fed him the ball on the way to this record.

There is no reason Newton has to take on this volume of carries in the red zone. Not when you have two established running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

Carolina has also added Mike Tolbert from San Diego this offseason. Tolbert has 19 touchdown runs in the last two seasons. That would make it even more ridiculous for Newton to attempt to repeat this type of performance in 2012.

If Newton scores five touchdowns on seven attempts from inside (and including) the 10 this year, then he will have done a better job for his team in this area than he did last season.

Do not be fooled by volume; let the trio of running backs take over naturally for these scores.

Carolina does not have the best goal-line running quarterback in the NFL. They have someone they watched take the most unnecessary hits in the red zone last season, and they should be looking to rectify that immediately.

There is no logical reason for Newton to sustain or improve on his rookie rushing touchdown total in 2012 and beyond. He also does not need to do that to improve as a quarterback.

When you analyze the way Newton went about it last year, you merely see that it was nothing more than a statistical oddity.

A fluke that should not, and will not, be repeated.

 

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