The Carolina Panthers are approaching a critical moment in their history.
Current starting quarterback Cam Newton is entering his fifth season in the NFL. His rookie contract lasts just one more season, and he has yet to agree to an extension with the franchise. The quarterback market is as volatile as it has ever been right now, so signing any quarterback to a long-term deal is a huge commitment.
A few teams have been able to avoid that commitment by structuring deals in specific ways, but Newton has apparently refused to entertain the idea of signing a deal similar to Andy Dalton's or Colin Kaepernick's.
Newton wants guaranteed money and a real commitment to his future from the Panthers. He wants a real contract, not one the team can get out of easily. The Panthers appear willing to give him one, too, but both sides are seemingly content to let Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson set the market.
In terms of team success and reputation, Newton isn't on par with Luck or Wilson. The Panthers feel like they can make a compelling argument against Newton as the best young quarterback in the NFL. But they shouldn't.
The now-26-year-old quarterback is worthy of a huge contract. He is worthy of being spoken about in ways that Wilson and Luck are. Recently, Newton was selling his own talent publicly, per Connor Orr of NFL.com:
I say this with the most humility, but I don't think nobody has ever been who I'm trying to be. Nobody has the size, nobody has the speed, nobody has the arm strength, nobody had the intangibles that I've had. I'm not saying that to say I'm a one-on-one type of person that this league will never see another. No, I'm not saying that. Hear me out. I'm just saying that so much of my talents have not been seen in one person.
Arrogance is a trait the media as a whole is selectively receptive toward. Some players or coaches are praised for their arrogance, others are overly scrutinized for theirs. Newton generally falls into the latter group.
Even as he suggests he is speaking with humility, there is no doubt Newton is showing off arrogance with his statements. That's really not important, though. What's important is that what he's saying is hard to argue.
Newton does possess a unique skill set.
Luck will argue he can match the quarterback's physical talent, but Luck plays the game with a different style. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback picks his spots as a runner smartly and efficiently, but he isn't as elusive or creative with his vision in space.
Wilson offers the elusiveness and open-field vision to match Newton's creativity as a runner, but there are a number of traits separating the duo. Wilson is much smaller than Newton, so he can't simply run over linebackers, and he shows less comfort in the pocket as a passer.
Kaepernick is probably the closest physical specimen to Newton when it comes to on-field actions, but Kaepernick's ability as a passer is inferior to Newton's in many ways. Most significantly, Kaepernick lacks the subtlety as a passer Newton possesses.
While you may not like the source of the message, it's hard to argue with what the source is saying on this occasion.
The most significant part of what Newton said was "who I'm trying to be." He didn't proclaim himself a great player right now, he talked about what he is looking to become. For any quarterback in the NFL, working on your flaws and developing your strengths is crucial for sustained success. Newton has obviously worked to refine his ability after being the first overall pick of the 2011 draft.
During his rookie season, Newton primarily relied on his physical talent to be an impactful player. His poise was impressive, but he ran the ball a significant amount because he was still developing patience as a passer.
Over the past few years, his play from the pocket has gradually improved.
Unfortunately, that improvement hasn't been represented statistically because of a declining supporting cast. Though many statistics are assigned individually to quarterbacks, those numbers typically represent the whole passing game more than they do the individual.
The quarterback is connected to his offensive line, the system his offensive coordinator runs, his running game, his receivers and his defense. Each of those individual aspects of the offense impacts the statistical production of the quarterback. But it doesn't stop there.
An NFL offense is built like a spider web. While the quarterback is directly connected to each unit around him, each of those units is connected to each other, too. This means each part of the structure supports itself on macro and micro levels.
Even considering all of that, we then must consider the opposing defense and how its strengths and weaknesses impact the stability of the structure of the offense. Plays can fail or succeed for a seemingly infinite number of reasons.
Instead of focusing on Newton's numbers, we should focus on his ability to mitigate pressure, read coverages, throw receivers open, fit the ball into tight windows and throw the ball while under pressure. Considering all of those aspects of his play, while also tracking his consistency, provides a better evaluation of the individual while accounting for his supporting cast but not allowing it to blur the results.
There are countless examples of Newton elevating his teammates as a passer from the pocket last season.
According to Football Outsiders, 47 percent of Newton's passes last season were short (0-6 yards). Of the 37 qualifying passers, only four had a lower percentage. Newton made up for this deficit by throwing more intermediate passes (6-15 yards). Only Joe Flacco threw a greater percentage of intermediate passes.
Flacco played behind a dominant offensive line in a scheme that helped him throw intermediate routes. Newton, on the other hand, was forced to show off his ability to subtly adjust to pressure in the pocket.
On this early play against the Cincinnati Bengals, we see a typical situation Newton was put in last year. As he drops back in the pocket, the defense rushes four players after the quarterback while the offense initially keeps six blockers in front of its quarterback.
When Newton gets to the top of his drop, he has nowhere to go with the football. The route combinations against the crowded coverage haven't given him a quick throw to hit on 2nd-and-5.
Even though Newton has only just hit the top of his drop, the Panthers left guard has already been beaten in his assignment. The Bengals right defensive tackle, Geno Atkins, was able to slap him to the inside, creating a clear lane for him to attack the quarterback.
Newton stands strong in the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield, but his receivers are covered.
Atkins wasn't overly aggressive in attacking Newton in the pocket, but Newton was able to use his quick feet to adjust at the last second to throw him off slightly. The defensive tackle attempted a sack, but Newton used his upper body strength to brush him off.
The quarterback's eyes only dropped from downfield after the contact was initiated by Atkins.
Even after his footwork and strength allowed Newton to extend the play, none of his downfield receivers had created any separation. Newton immediately reset his feet and looked downfield, where Jason Avant was running across the field.
Avant had a receiver behind him, but Newton couldn't lead him into space because of the linebacker occupying the passing lane. He also couldn't hold on to the ball because pressure was arriving from the left.
Instead, Newton threw a fastball past the other shoulder of the linebacker in the hope Avant would adjust to make the tight reception. Avant failed to track the ball properly, allowing the defensive back to push him away from the ball. Newton could have dumped the ball off to the back behind the line of scrimmage, but said linebacker was in position to close on him quickly.
The footwork and willingness to keep his eyes downfield here were the most significant aspects of this play when focusing on what Newton could control. He still needed to use his strength to shrug Atkins off, but he wouldn't have been able to if he hadn't altered the angle with his feet.
A lot of mitigating pressure in the pocket is about being willing to take a hit. Newton has always been willing to do that, but it's his feet and eyes working in concert that have highlighted his development.
Dealing with interior pressure is always difficult for quarterbacks at any level. It often requires a quarterback to break a tackle, but most in the NFL aren't capable or drop their eyes too often. Where quarterbacks are expected to negate pressure is off the edge.
For most of the season, Newton wasn't given clean pockets to step up into. However, when he did hold the ball long enough to find himself in a position to negate edge pressure, he naturally did it. On this play, the Saints' right defensive end gets a great burst off the snap to begin the play.
Carolina's left tackle is able to slow him down, but as the image above suggests, he is fighting a losing battle from the start.
Newton never takes his eyes away from the right sideline, where he has a receiver running a deep route. He feels the pressure closing behind him and escapes toward the opposite side of the field where there is space.
As he moves, Newton brings his eyes down to his tight end, Greg Olsen, over the middle of the field. Olsen sat his curl route down between two defenders, and Newton put the ball on his outside shoulder so he could catch it before turning upfield.
Behind a better offensive line, Newton should be able to show more patience in the pocket and highlight his ability to read coverages consistently. Despite his running ability, Newton isn't just an athlete attempting to throw the football.
His understanding of coverages, willingness to work through progressions and ability to manipulate safeties with his eyes is evident even if not constantly highlighted.
The nuance of Newton's play within the pocket is lost by the focus on his statistical production and the offense's efficiency as a whole. He may still have his flaws to work on—accuracy is the primary one—but the overall quality of his individual performance is high enough to make him a franchise quarterback.
Debate always rages over who is and isn't a franchise quarterback, and even what the term specifically means.
One thing that can't be debated is the improvement the Panthers have shown on offense since they drafted Newton. Newton alone can't receive all the credit, it requires greater context, but he obviously has a significant role as the starting quarterback.
This chart from Football Outsiders tracks the snap-by-snap efficiency of Carolina's offense since 2001, with the highlighted seasons representing when Newton was on the roster.
|Season||Team DVOA||Team Rushing DVOA||Team Passing DVOA|
Football Outsiders' DVOA breakdown typically allows you to separate a quarterback's running game from him to suggest if he is overly reliant on it. Until last season, Newton's running game had been effective, but that can't be received the way it typically is.
That is because Newton plays a huge role in the running game and has elevated it as a whole since he was drafted.
His poor health in 2014 played a major role in the unit dropping to 16th in the NFL. That wasn't the sole issue, though, as the team's offensive line proved to be one of the worst in the league both in terms of pass protection and run blocking.
With an often overwhelmed offensive line and unreliable receivers who struggled to both get open and consistently track the ball in the air, it was no surprise the offense fell off in 2014.
The line did improve toward the end of the season, but unfortunately for Newton, his worst performances of the season came at the worst possible time. After two impressive displays to help get his team into the playoffs, Newton struggled against the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.
Over two games, he completed 41 of 68 passes for 444 yards and four touchdowns. He also added 72 rushing yards on 18 carries, but turnovers were a major issue. He had three interceptions, three fumbles and threw five interceptable passes that were his fault.
To worsen matters, his accuracy proved to be erratic, as he missed wide-open receivers downfield on a number of occasions. The then-25-year-old was quick to shoulder the blame after the divisional round loss to the Seattle Seahawks:
I did a bad job of protecting the football, and when you're playing a great defense you just have to take what they give you. A lot of times, I was overlooking the play that needed to be made instead of trying to make the bigger play.
I was trying to give guys opportunities, trying to give guys chances.
Oftentimes, what a player does in prime time is what is used to judge his whole season. Because prime-time games have larger audiences than others, onlookers attach a greater significance to them. Those few games that always add up to a minority sample are extrapolated to represent whole seasons.
For quarterbacks playing in the playoffs, this is pushed to a greater extreme.
Measuring Newton's value on that small sample, or simply looking at his relatively muted statistical output, is easy to do and would make a compelling argument to most. If the Panthers want to use those to lowball Newton, they can. However, they misrepresent his value and his development as a whole.
For as long as Newton has been in the NFL, his supporting cast has acted as an anchor more than an elevator. The weight of that anchor has gradually grown with key players aging, being released and retiring, while younger replacements have failed to live up to expectations.
Without him moving forward, the Panthers would likely discover their offense is one of the least talented in the whole league.
His skill set has always been among the most impressive in the NFL. His development has been gradual but effective. His consistency is still coming along, but it's definitely getting to where it needs to be. Newton's only major issue at this stage is his accuracy, something that would likely increase with a better offensive line that allowed him to slow down his process in the pocket.
It may require a major financial commitment to sign Newton, but it is a commitment worth making.