Let's get this out of the way first: There is no award called "Best NFL Rookie Season Ever." There is no vote. It's purely a mythical title.
It's also a great debate. The Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton has become a contender for the title because of a 2011 season in which he became the first rookie quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards and the first quarterback ever to rush for 14 touchdowns.
Newton accounted for a rookie-record 35 touchdowns overall - he had 21 passing touchdowns. And when the 6-5, 244-pound Newton begins running and gets beyond the defensive linemen and into a defense's secondary, he's frequently bigger than the players trying to bring him down.
"There are guys out there in the back half of NFL defenses making business decisions at that point," said Herm Edwards, a former NFL player and coach for 30 years who is now an ESPN analyst. "They're going, 'I don't really want to tackle this guy.' Cam is a whole different sort of cat. His athleticism is just like, 'Really?! Really?!' "
But were 35 total touchdowns for a 6-10 team enough to grab the title of "Best Rookie Season Ever"? Peter King of Sports Illustrated believes so. But do you? Would you consider Newton's rookie season better than:
Lawrence Taylor, who started redefining the position of outside linebacker as a rookie out of North Carolina in 1981 and ended up being named AP Defensive Player of the Year? Not just rookie of the year, mind you - best defensive player in the league.
Eric Dickerson, who led the entire league in rushing with 1,808 yards in 1983 and scored 18 rushing touchdowns?
Dick "Night Train" Lane, who set an NFL record as a rookie in 1952 with 14 interceptions that still stands 60 years later - in a 12-game season?
Randy Moss, who in 1998 led the NFL with 17 receiving TDs as a rookie and had 1,313 receiving yards?
Ben Roethlisberger, who in 2004 went 14-1 as a rookie starting quarterback, including 13-0 in the regular season?
There are many more contenders. You might be surprised for instance, that roughly half of the AP Offensive Rookies of the Year have been running backs. There have been more than 50 cases of an NFL rookie running back rushing for more than 1,000 yards (with Dickerson's total still the rookie high-water mark). In statistical terms, it's not uncommon at all.
'Right into the fire'
There have been fewer great rookie years by NFL quarterbacks, in large part because even the best of the bunch often sat behind a veteran in their first season. Dan Marino played barely more than half a season as a rookie - throwing 20 touchdown passes and only six interceptions and starting in the Pro Bowl. Peyton Manning started in 1998 and had 26 TDs - still the rookie record - but he also threw 28 interceptions and went 3-13 for Indianapolis.
NFL teams more frequently start rookie quarterbacks for an entire season these days. Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Roethlisberger have all experienced success as rookies in the past decade. All three had the benefit of strong defenses and were more "game-manager" types of quarterbacks in their first year, asked more often not to lose a game than to win it. Roethlisberger, for instance, averaged about one touchdown pass and less than 200 passing yards per game his rookie season.
Of the seven rookies to throw for more than 3,000 yards with at least 10 touchdown passes, four of them came in the past four years (Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Newton and Andy Dalton). In Cincinnati, Dalton got the Bengals to the playoffs this season and is Newton's main competitor for the offensive rookie-of-the-year honors.
Newton dwarfed Dalton in rushing touchdowns (14 to one). The two were very close in touchdown passes (21 for Newton, 20 for Dalton). Newton had more interceptions (17 to 13).
"The one area I'd say was problematic for Newton and different from, say, Andy Dalton, was the turnovers," said Eric Mangini, who has been the head coach for two NFL teams and now works for ESPN. "That's the only thing that weighs down the season. As explosive as he was offensively, that would be the one area where I would have concern."
Tim Hasselbeck, an NFL quarterback for six years who now works as an ESPN analyst, had a more positive view.
"Factor in that Cam was thrown right into the fire, not having time to get many reps because of the lockout before training camp," Hasselbeck said. "When you look at it from that perspective, what he did this season is without a doubt as impressive as any rookie quarterback I've ever seen."
King, the Sports Illustrated writer, wrote one sentence in the Jan.9 SI issue saying he believed Newton's rookie season was the best ever and then magnified his point at my request.
"He broke the rookie record for passing yards in a season," King wrote in an email to me about Newton. "He broke the record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback - and he's a third of the way to breaking the career record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. He accounted for more touchdowns than any rookie ever. The Panthers scored 210 more points this year than last. Is it a coincidence that Newton accounted for 210 points? He did - 35 touchdowns, times six. That's 210."
The impact of "LT"
There are dozens of numbers you can analyze from Newton's season. What Taylor did in 1981, though, was harder to quantify. Sacks weren't even an official NFL statistic at the time, although he had 9.5 of them unofficially. But until Taylor, outside linebackers looked different.
"They were good about playing the run, but they were sort of heavy-legged," said Edwards, who was a cornerback in the NFL then. "Then Taylor came and his athleticism was off the charts. He changed the way linebackers were viewed."
NFL teams in those days often lined up in the "I" formation, with the fullback directly behind the quarterback and the tailback behind him, about eight yards deep. The offense would then run a sweep to one side and leave unblocked the outside linebacker on the other side, figuring the tailback could outrun that player anyway. Taylor chased down the tailback so frequently from behind that many NFL teams either stopped using the "I" formation entirely against the Giants or at least blocked it differently. Teams began looking for faster linebackers in Taylor's mold.
Quarterbacks win the various rookie-of-the-year awards far less frequently than running backs or linebackers. Quarterback is the most complex position in football, one in which eye-popping athleticism isn't enough. JaMarcus Russell was the overall No.1 pick in the NFL draft in 2007 precisely because he could throw a football 70 yards with some accuracy. But Russell isn't even in the league anymore because he wasn't able to handle everything else that went along with the position.
Running backs often make a bigger impact more quickly. There have been 16 rookie running backs to rush for more than 1,300 yards (only three rookie wide receivers have reached that number). Those running backs range from hall of famers like Dickerson and Barry Sanders (1,470) to those with solid but ultimately unspectacular NFL careers like Rueben Mayes (1,353) and South Carolina's George Rogers (1,674).
But what about game-changers like Taylor - players who turned a position on its head and made everyone look at it in a new way?
There have been only a few. In 1965, the graceful Gale Sayers entered the league with a flourish and put a premium on speed. His yardage numbers weren't incredible, but his 22 touchdowns included 14 rushing, six receiving and two on returns.
In 1998, Randy Moss came out of Marshall and did much the same thing. He had dropped to No.21 in the first round because of character concerns (the Panthers chose defensive end Jason Peter at No.14 instead of Moss).
Moss then became a game-changer, with a combination of size (6-4, 210) and speed that more than compensated for his rawness. "What he did as a rookie was just phenomenal," Edwards said. "He lined up on the left side and never moved. When they crossed the 50, he was always running vertical (to the end zone). And you couldn't stop him."
Moss' 17 receiving touchdowns led the NFL that season as the Vikings went 15-1 (but lost in the playoffs).
My final ranking
I would argue that Newton is another game-changer. Certainly there have been mobile quarterbacks before him who could throw - Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick and so on. But Newton, as Edwards said, is truly a "whole different sort of cat." His accuracy, his ability to think on the field and his work ethic were all underrated coming out of college. And he is the best athlete on a football field every time he steps on it.
Also, remember this: Jimmy Clausen had almost the same offensive cast as Newton in 2010, and the Panthers' offense was the worst in the NFL. Newton's win-loss record will get better in conjunction with the Panthers' defense, but he's already amazing. He was the first quarterback ever to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for at least 500 yards in the same season.
As I've written before, I believe Newton's maturity level needs some work. He can be more of a leader. He can work on his sideline body language and his occasional interview misstep. I think that will come. Newton is, after all, only 22.
When I asked Edwards, Hasselbeck and Mangini point-blank if Newton's rookie season was the best ever, none of them wanted to go there. They all deflected the question.
Noted Edwards: "After 30 years of playing and coaching in the league, I only have a couple of definites. One is that the best player in the NFL, ever, was Jim Brown. And I can tell you for sure the best cornerback ever was Deion Sanders. Other than that, I sort of leave all the absolutes alone."
That's fine. But ultimately, I'm with King. After analyzing the numbers, I would rank the top five rookie seasons this way, in order:
Cam Newton, Panthers, 2011.
Lawrence Taylor, N.Y. Giants, 1981.
Randy Moss, Minnesota, 1998.
Dick "Night Train Lane," L.A. Rams, 1952.
Eric Dickerson, L.A. Rams, 1983.
You don't agree? More power to you. But to me, Newton's rookie season was so remarkable that it deserves to be ranked No.1. The big question now is this:
What's he going to do for an encore?