After the Carolina Panthers suffered a 31-26 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game, the autopsy of their 2017 season began.
No one is getting more flak than quarterback Cam Newton, who, in addition to being the focal point of a joint NFL and NFLPA review for the way the Panthers handled Newton’s injury in the fourth quarter, will also have to deal with questions centering on his ability to bring this, or any, franchise back among the league’s Super Bowl contenders.
The numbers are not encouraging.
In 2015, Newton produced 7.2 adjusted net yards per pass, a tweak on yards per attempt that gives quarterbacks credit for throwing touchdowns and penalizes them for interceptions and sacks. He’s been average or below average by this metric in four out of the other six seasons.
A more traditional metric, passer rating, shows a similar trend: one good year surrounded by average or below-average play.
Now I know what you are thinking — Newton is more than just a passer, he can beat teams with his legs, too. That was true, but isn’t anymore. In 2011, Newton’s rookie season, he rushed 126 times for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns, scoring 1.8 more points per game via the run than expected after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each play. A year later that dropped to 1.1 more points scored per game than expected, and it has never been as high since.
Blame the offensive line for that decline if you want, but in 2017 the Panthers’ offensive front allowed Newton to be pressured on just 33 percent of his dropbacks, the lowest rate since he entered the league in 2011. That same line was also rated as the 10th best run-blocking unit by the game charters at Pro Football Focus. According to Football Outsiders, Carolina’s offensive line helped convert 72 percent of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, into a first down or touchdown (fifth-best) while allowing a 19 percent stuff rate (12th-best). In other words, Newton played behind a good line but still managed to produce sub-par results — both through the air and on the ground.
The numbers would agree with anyone who says the talent around Newton isn’t as good as it has been in years past. The 2015 Super Bowl team was ranked No. 1 in offense and No. 4 in defense during the regular season by PFF and fourth overall according to Football Outsider’s Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent. But the 2017 team ranked No. 13 overall by PFF and No. 9 in overall DVOA, illustrating this isn’t a basement-dweller either.
Some will also argue Newton is only one elite receiver away from contending for a Super Bowl again. But even if the franchise does acquire a top-name wideout, Newton doesn’t appear to be able to make it work.
For example, Newton was accurate on 69 percent of his passes in 2017 after accounting for dropped passes, throwaways, spiked balls, batted passes and passes in which he was hit while he threw. Only DeShone Kizer of the Cleveland Browns (66 percent) was worse. In 2016, Newton’s accuracy rate (65 percent) was the worst in the NFL. He’s had just one season, 2013, in which his accuracy rate was in the top half of the league.
|The formula: ((Completions + Drops) / (Attempts – Throw Aways – Spikes – Batted Passes – Hit As Thrown))|
If Newton isn’t a gifted passer, and can’t have an impact on the game with his running ability like he used to, his value to the Panthers going forward is minimal, low enough that a change of scenery would be good for him and the organization.
According to research by Scott Kacsmar at FiveThirtyEight, the championship window for Coach Ron Rivera, who was awarded a two-year extension through 2020 on Saturday, and Newton may have already passed. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, every coach/starting quarterback combination to win the Super Bowl required no more than five years together to earn their first title. Rivera and Newton have been together since 2011.
To be fair, Rivera and Newton reached the Super Bowl in 2015, their fifth season together, but since then Newton has not been anywhere close to a top-level performer. In fact, the numbers suggest his 2015 campaign, which earned him the league’s MVP award, was an outlier and not representative of his true ability at all.
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