By the Sabermetrics: Cam Newton a Below-Average Passer?

Just got an interesting Tweet from Pro Football Focus. Since it's the catalyst for this piece, I'll link to it here:

Click the "here:" part to open it in a new window and compare to read along with me here. Also, each individual page has a direct link you can click on to open a new page and look there. However, most of the stats have two pages so if you want to compare Cam to the entire field of QBs, click on the link above, underlined, where I indicated and it will take you to the main page of the PFW piece.

The subject? QB efficiency by down and distance....and the numbers for Cam are not good.

For instance, on 2nd down and long (8+ yards), Cam ranked just above Cleveland's Brandon Weeden and just below Chad Henne of the Jaguars. No - you have to click the second window down. He's not even on the first page. MAJOR YAWN!

On 2nd and Medium (4-7 yards), sorry....second page again. 

He's JUST above the feared Matt Schaub. Notice I didn't say which team actually fears Matt Schaub dropping back to attempt a pass.

Cam actually is ranked better than average on 2nd and Short - with over a third of those being rollouts, far more than the next guy on the page (Geno Smith, who is right below Cam on this one).
Cam Newton
He's very slightly negative (looking at the far-right summary "rating" on the page) on 3rd and 10+...again, with more rollouts than anyone with Aaron Rodgers not too far behind, surprisingly enough. 

Also somewhat surprisingly, Phillip Rivers is the only QB on that page to have over 10 yards per attempt, making the San Diego Super Chargers a much more dangerous team in long-yardage situations than most would have thought.

Cam, Case Keenum, and Jake Locker are the only QBs to drop back 9+ yards on such plays....hardly great company to be in.

On 3rd and Long (being 6-10 yards), Cam actually ranked second. First was Matt Ryan, and that's interesting because of the injuries and offensive woes the Falcons had last season. Cam had the longest "time to throw" of any of them at 3.52 seconds on these downs....but no rollouts in 61 attempts.

On 3rd and Medium (3-5 yards): Cam is back down page two, just below Brandon Weeden. Cam was tops at 17.5 YAC per completion, but that number is skewed up by a couple of long screen passes that the running back did all the work on....along with his blockers of course.

On 3rd and short (under 3 yards), Cam once again does his impression of the late Paul Harvey... "Page Two..." and with 3.99 seconds to throw - the most of any QB in the NFL. While he was far down the list, he was still "above zero" and only a handful of QBs were below zero on this stat. It makes sense because defenses often expect a run on 3rd and short - especially from the power-running Panthers - so a pass attempt should take them somewhat by surprise or catch them with the wrong personnel on the field (heavy on linemen, light on DBs).

I think that last statistic is quite telling. While you all know the saying about lies, damned lies, and statistics, sometimes statistics cut through the noise and help you see a picture more clearly.

However, the NFL isn't so simple. 

Newton doesn't rank very highly in any of the passing categories with the one exception I mentioned above, but it's a team sport. He's got 11 people wanting to kill him with only 10 helping him with blocking or going out in the pass pattern - the same as all other QBs. It's the nature of the game.

Taking a long look at all the information on these pages and attempting to digest it to come out with a single declarative statement would be over-simplifying things. The fact that Cam was relatively ineffective overall in the passing game in 2013 is already well-documented: The Carolina Panthers had the NFL's worst offense in terms of explosive plays - plays of 20+ yards - and that cannot be put on Cam's shoulders.

It's one part play-calling, one part blocking, and one part talent at the WR and TE spots.

It tells me the play-calling was not imaginative - many have observed that. Other than Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross, the pass-blocking by the other three linemen was a struggle, to say the least....the "time to throw" stat I attribute to Cam's mobility and rollout rates as much as anything.

It also tells me the team lacked overall speed in the receivers. I'm on record since before the 2012 season began that Smitty had lost a step, Greg Olson is an upper-tier receiving TE but no game-breaker like a Vernon Davis or such, and Ted Ginn, Jr. could not consistently catch the deep pass even if he got open. That much has been the story of his career and if not for his immense return ability, he'd probably be out of the NFL by now. Brandon LaFell never even posed as a "speed" receiver....he's a "possession" style WR and always has been, and his run-blocking for a WR is top notch. But again, he's no game-breaker.

Just as a great mechanic can only be as great as his toolbox - you can't lift a motor out to work on it if you don't have a strong machine and big chains to hoist it, after all - a good or great QB is only as good as his.

History shows us few exceptions. Dan Marino took two late-round WRs in Mark Duper and Mark Clayton and made stars out of them not so much for their size (both were 5'9") or talents, but because of Marino's off-the-charts accuracy, arm strength, and lightning-fast release. 

Marino is a PRIME example of statistics lying: He was almost always the least-sacked QB in the NFL in any given year, which would make one otherwise think "hmm he must be elusive and a fast guy that can get out of trouble" when we ALL know he was only slightly more ambulatory than my 94 yr-old offense to Grandma! Marino's quick release, pocket presence, and "phone-booth" agility is what kept his sack numbers so low. So be careful drawing TOO many conclusions from a few stats.

People may think his O-line was great. It wasn't. In fact, it couldn't run-block at ALL and any real talent didn't arrive until Richmond Webb was drafted I think in 1990. Marino came along in '83. It's his field awareness and the quickest release in NFL history that kept him from being sacked.

Still, the statistics are often useful when put in context. Even Cam's detractors readily admit he's a freakish off-the-charts QB athletically with a nearly inhuman combination of size, strength, agility, and speed....not to mention a Howitzer for an arm. 

People often loved to talk about his "sophomore slump" in 2012 - remember, the "slump" where he set a Panthers' club record for consecutive passes without throwing an interception? Yeah, THAT slump.

I think his "sophomore slump" came partly due to then-OC "Chud" - who went on to the Black Hole of Cleveland as Head Coach only to be fired after a single season (surprise, surprise) - and the aforementioned loss of speed by Steve Smith. Cam lost the ability to throw the top off the defense and that wasn't his fault. Father Time had his say in there.

If nothing else, it's interesting to look at those statistics - again, click on the link at the top of the page to open the new window if you haven't yet - and just peruse through them. Some of it should be Greek to you, but some of it speaks for itself and that's what I've tried to concentrate on for simplicity's sake.

They tell me Carolina has had questionable blocking (otherwise, why call the most rollouts of anyone pre-snap?) and little speed when you "take away" the 2 or 3 long screen pass plays that were technically throws but in reality act more like long handoffs or a sweep-style running play where the RB actually did the work. For instance, see the Jets game where DeAngelo Williams took a screen pass 74 yards for a TD. Plays like that really can skew the results, so they have to be factored in.

It's also no coincidence that D-Will is the guy on offense that actually has some speed left in him. The offense, once again, finished dead last in plays of over 20 yards. Cam can't run, throw, AND catch - at least, not in the same play - not by design.

What do I personally take away from this? The simple, age-old and time-tried axiom:

You can't coach speed.

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