Sophomore Slump or Surge for Cam Newton and Andy Dalton?

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Sophomore Slump or Surge for Cam Newton and Andy Dalton?
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Sophomore slump is no excuse for Cam Newton this year.

After last year’s instant rookie success, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton enter their sophomore seasons with high expectations. 

If one is to experience a sophomore slump, then that means they had to be good enough as a rookie to even garner that kind of attention. Notice how no one is putting this type of pressure on second-year quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder right now. Those players are experiencing the pressure to prove their worth and draft status.

Newton and Dalton are expected to win and take greater command of their offense while committing fewer mistakes. That is a lot to ask of young quarterbacks, but their 2011 success is why the bar sits where it does.

Here is a look at the history the two quarterbacks are going up against, and what they need to improve on to have another successful campaign.

George Rose/Getty Images
Dan Marino in 1984: the gold standard for sophomore QBs.

 

Sophomore Surges

The history of great seasons by second-year quarterbacks—independent of rookie performance—is a short one.

Dan Marino was excellent as a rookie, but he rewrote the NFL record books as a 23-year-old sophomore in 1984 with 48 touchdowns and 5,084 yards. But that is the gold standard. In fact, it is in the discussion for the greatest quarterback season ever when you consider how green he still was.

Kurt Warner had previous pro experience in other leagues, but at 28 years old and in his second NFL season in 1999, his success story is one of the greatest ever. In between bagging groceries and winning a Super Bowl MVP, Warner threw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdown passes.

Those are your dream seasons. The more common sophomore season is fortunate to be even half as good as what league MVP winners and Super Bowl starters Marino and Warner accomplished.

Last year Newton set an NFL rookie record with 4,051 passing yards. He threw for 21 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more. Dalton passed for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns. They both joined Peyton Manning (3,739 yards and 26 touchdowns in 1998) as the only rookies in NFL history to surpass 3,000 yards and 20 touchdown passes.

Any improvement on those numbers in 2012 would put Newton and Dalton in rare sophomore company as well.

Note: Jack Kemp was excluded for the two seasons he missed in between 1957 and 1960.

Just hitting the bare minimum of 3,000 yards and 20 touchdown passes has only been done 13 times by a sophomore quarterback. Josh Freeman (2010) and Joe Flacco (2009) were the most recent to do so.

Only eight quarterbacks have thrown at least 25 touchdown passes: Dan Marino (48 in 1984), Kurt Warner (41 in 1999), Daunte Culpepper (33 in 2000), Jeff Garcia (31 in 2000), Boomer Esiason (27 in 1985), Peyton Manning (26 in 1999), Drew Bledsoe (25 in 1994) and Josh Freeman (25 in 2010).

Some had all-time great receivers, while some did not even play much as rookies. Garcia and Warner had previous pro experience, while Bledsoe threw 691 passes, which is still the NFL record.

It is no easy task to be a prolific, young quarterback in the NFL, so temper some of those expectations for Newton and Dalton to exceed statistically what they accomplished last year. Besides, they can have better seasons without the big numbers, as long as they play more efficiently in 2012.

 

Sophomore Slumps

Studying the sophomore slump for a quarterback is no easy task, and I have already done so recently at Cold, Hard Football Facts. You can view the step-by-step study here.

To have a slump, one must do something adequate as a rookie, so eventually I was able to narrow the list down to 35 “good” rookie quarterbacks who best fit the criteria. Calling some of these seasons good was a stretch, but that’s what you get with rookie quarterbacks.

From there, the results were clear. The sophomore slump used to exist, with 10 of the first 15 rookies (all before 1980) experiencing a slump.

However, since 1980 only five of the last 20 adequate rookies experienced a sophomore slump, so it has not been a recent problem. Quarterbacks should be expected to have a second-year growth, not a regression.

It should come as no surprise the names of some of the best rookie quarterbacks who went on to have excellent sophomore seasons. That list would include Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.

Also, players such as Steve Grogan, Shaun King, Vince Young, Jake Plummer, Bernie Kosar and Joe Flacco went on to have successful sophomore seasons, which ended with playoff appearances for each.

 

The 2012 Improvement

Where Newton and Dalton need to improve is in their situational football. This will help their teams score more and improve their records.

What I'm talking about here are game situations that may only make up a small percentage of the total plays, but are the most important in deciding the outcome of games. Performing well in these crucial moments is the best way to separate yourself from the other quarterbacks.

 

Third Downs

On third downs last season, neither quarterback was considerably good, but Dalton was noticeably worse.

Pay little attention to the passer rating, which looks adequate for Dalton because of the touchdown-to-interception ratio. The key number here is the conversion rate in the final column. Both are under 40 percent, which must not happen again this year.

Dalton’s 5.72 yards per attempt, a poor number, is especially concerning.

Newton was far more likely to run, gaining 24 of his first downs on the ground compared to only three for Dalton, who does have decent mobility.

 

Red Zone

As I already went over in much detail this summer, Newton was essentially the goal-line running back for Carolina’s offense. He was given 39 carries inside the red zone, which tripled the amount of the next closest quarterback in the league.

He did score a record 14 rushing touchdowns for a quarterback, but when 13 of them were on designed runs, you really cannot compare Newton to any other quarterback in NFL history. If anything, this rushing-TD total should be compared to running backs based on the way he was used.

That should not happen again this year with more money spent on the RB position and the signing of San Diego’s Mike Tolbert. It is also not conducive to Newton’s health to keep using him that way.

Newton could look to what Vince Young did his first two seasons. While 2007 was not as thrilling or dynamic on the ground as his rookie season, Young improved his passing somewhat and reached the playoffs as a wild-card team.

Do not expect more rushing touchdowns from Newton. The man he beat out for the single-season rushing touchdown record, Steve Grogan, actually set the record with 12 touchdowns in 1976, his second season. The Patriots were 11-3 and Grogan accounted for 30 total touchdowns.

While Newton had success as a runner in the red zone, his decision-making and tighter-window passing could use some improvement.

Dalton was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the red zone last season when it came to passing the ball.

Much was made of Newton's dual-threat abilities, but part of the reason he ran more in the red zone was because he was more effective as a rusher than as a passer.

Out of 27 quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts in the red zone, Newton was No. 26 in passer rating (70.6) and No. 24 in completion percentage (44.1 percent).

 

The Tough Wins

The Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals were among the worst teams in the league last year when playing the tougher opponents—teams that made the playoffs and/or had a winning record.

Despite making the playoffs, the Bengals were 0-8 against playoff teams in 2011. Carolina was only 1-6, with a road win over Houston which was quarterbacked by T.J. Yates, who later knocked Cincinnati out of the playoffs in the Wild Card Game.

In a tough division with Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati will have to overcome what looks to be a difficult schedule and beat some better teams this year if they want to make the playoffs again.

Do not count on three playoff teams from the AFC North again. They will play the NFC East and AFC West this season, and not the AFC South and NFC West like last year.

One area that was not much of a problem for Cincinnati was winning the close ones. Dalton led four fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives in 2011, which puts him in rare company for a rookie.

Dalton had his fourth comeback in the 11th game of his career, which ties Jay Schroeder for the fewest games to reach that mark in NFL history. He also tied Ben Roethlisberger and Vince Young for the most regular season fourth-quarter comebacks by a rookie in NFL history.

For Carolina, close games were a nightmare in 2011. They were 1-8 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, with the only win coming over Jacksonville on a wet, soggy field.

But fear not, for that record could turn around this season—that is, if Newton follows in the footsteps of some of our past sophomore successes.

Bernie Kosar (1986), Jake Plummer (1998) and Peyton Manning (1999) each tied what was then the NFL record with seven game-winning drives in their second season on the way to the playoffs.

Johnny Unitas (1957) and Byron Leftwich (2004) also had multiple comebacks to get their teams over .500 for the season. Even Shaun King led three game-winning drives in 2000 for a Tampa Bay team that went 10-6.

Leading the big drives that did not materialize last year behind Newton could easily be the difference in a 6-10 or 9-7 season. The Bengals finished enough of those games, while Carolina did not.

Keep an eye on whether or not there is a role reversal in close wins for these two this season. It would not be unheard of.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Cincinnati fans will now expect more wins.

 

Conclusion

Last season was a very unique year for quarterbacks, rookies and veterans alike, and it has only raised the bar to a new, perhaps unprecedented level for 2012.

What Cam Newton and Andy Dalton did last year puts a lot of pressure on this year’s rookie class of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson.

They will now be expected to have the kind of years Newton and Dalton did, though first we need to see just how believable last season, with the defense-battering lockout, was for those two (and some other players around the league, as well).

Both are in a position to have solid sophomore seasons, and the slump is nothing more than an excuse if they do not.

The biggest concern I have for each is that the perception will outweigh the reality in 2012. We have seen this happen too many times.

Dalton could produce a better season individually than what he did last year, but should the defense decline or the team not win so many close games for various reasons, he will not get the proper credit should they fail to make the playoffs.

Newton is known for his volume numbers as a rookie, but if he should only throw for 3,500 yards, rush for 500 more and total 30 touchdowns, then he will probably not get enough respect because he failed to exceed his 2011 totals.

But if Newton cuts down on turnovers and plays more efficiently and effectively at situational football (and leads the Panthers to more wins), then he will, without question, have had a better sophomore season than he did a rookie one.

Look for efficiency, not volume, as a sign of improvement for these young quarterbacks this season.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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