Just past the NFL season’s midpoint, Cam Newton ranks 26th in the league in passer rating, behind such lower-rung quarterbacks as Blake Bortles and Kirk Cousins.
Newton’s 53.7 percent completion rate puts him even further down the list of qualified passers. In fact, the only quarterback Newton ranks ahead of in terms of accuracy is Ryan Mallett, who is still looking for a job after Houston cut him two weeks ago.
But as the Panthers pile up wins this season, more NFL observers seem to have noticed what Newton has done rather than where he’s lacking.
With Newton leading the Panthers (8-0) to the best start in franchise history, it’s suddenly in vogue in NFL circles to include Newton in talk about MVP candidates.
The Panthers will take the field Sunday at Tennessee (2-6) as one of the league’s three remaining unbeaten teams.
The quarterbacks of the other two unbeatens – New England’s Tom Brady and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton – are the NFL’s highest-rated passers.
With an award that usually goes to the most outstanding player (with sparkling statistics) for a playoff-bound team, a vote for Newton would be an outside-the-box endorsement for a quarterback whose value transcends stats, according to his teammates, coaches and longtime league observers.
“I don’t think stats and measurables and all that stuff do him justice because I don’t think there’s anybody else in the league that impacts the league like he does,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “And I don’t think you can always quantify that. I think you have to watch the game. I think people that know football, that watch the games, they understand what we’re doing, what he’s doing, and it’s not a statistic competition.”
Since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2011, Newton’s value to the Panthers has always been more complex than traditional pocket passers. When Carolina sent coaches to Auburn to incorporate the zone-read attack the Tigers used with Newton, it was clear the Panthers were intent on taking advantage of Newton’s dual-threat skills.
Now that the Panthers are winning – they enter Sunday with a two-game lead for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs – the rest of the league is finally embracing Newton for who he is (a durable, strong-armed, skilled runner), not criticizing him for what he’s not (a precision passer).
“You’ve got to be willing to look beyond the numbers – quarterback rating, the completion percentage, stuff like that – and say, OK, what else is it?” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Is it about scoring touchdowns? Is it about throwing touchdown passes? Is it about completions? Or is it about winning too?”
Newton in the right position
The two biggest factors working for Newton in his MVP candidacy are his position and the Panthers’ success.
Seven of the past eight MVP winners, and 14 of the past 20, have been quarterbacks.
Only one MVP winner since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 did not play for a playoff team: Buffalo running back O.J. Simpson in 1973, when Simpson became the league’s first 2,000-yard back.
“The best stat I’ve got going for me right now is wins and losses,” Newton said this week. “That will always reign supreme over anything, any stat, any award that I’ve gotten. Statistics is all about wins and losses.”
Newton wasn’t talking about his MVP candidacy, but rather his place on the NFL’s career rushing touchdowns list among quarterbacks (his 38 rushing scores are behind only Steve Young’s 45).
But Newton’s point about wins and losses fits in the MVP conversation, too. Clouding the matter this season is the presence of two other quarterbacks of undefeated teams.
Jarrett Bell, a USA Today columnist and one of 50 voters in the Associated Press’ MVP balloting, says the final records of the Patriots, Bengals and Panthers could impact the MVP race.
“What if the Patriots lose two or three games? ... And what if the Panthers end up going 16-0? It could come down to something like that, which might not be the best way to really determine it. But it might be the thing that determines it,” Bell said.
“If Brady goes 16-0 and Cam goes 14-2 and Brady’s got stats, then that’s going to be hard for (Cam) to win, I would think. But I really think there’s something to be said for the fact that Cam has taken this progression over a number of years and gotten to this point.”
Progression as a passer
While Newton still doesn’t have flashy passing stats, a couple of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have been impressed with his development as a passer.
Trent Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, said he was struck by the number of big throws Newton made from the pocket in a Week 5 win at Seattle.
Dilfer referred to Newton’s performance at Seattle as high-level quarterbacking.
“Not just, OK, throw here or there. I mean precision-type stuff, graduate-level type stuff,” Dilfer said in a recent phone interview. “Looking guys off, pump-faking, on rhythm. ... I was blown away.”
Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo, who faced Carolina during Newton’s rookie year when Orakpo was with Washington, said Newton has come a long way as a passer.
“When he first came into the league, he was on the rise but he was using a lot of his athletic ability. But now he doesn’t have to rely on that so much,” Orakpo said. “Now he’s just kind of like a pocket quarterback when need be and just making his reads, making his progressions and then breaking the pocket when he needs to make a play when everything falls through.
“So, he’s definitely stepped his game up to a whole other level from when I’ve seen him years ago.”
Other duties, as needed
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula estimated that Newton is calling audibles 30 to 40 percent more than he was early in his career. His 39-yard touchdown pass to Philly Brown last week against Green Bay came on a play in which Newton looked right to freeze the safety, then threw deep left to Brown, who had 1-on-1 coverage.
But the Panthers still ask Newton to run more than any other quarterback. His 73 rushes are 15 more than Russell Wilson’s 58 carries.
And while Newton’s 4.7 yards-per-carry average is down from his 5.5-yard career average entering this season, he’s still remarkably productive when he runs.
Newton has picked up first downs on a league-leading 37 percent of his carries (27 of the 73). His 40.6 career first-down percentage on runs also leads the NFL over the past four-plus seasons.
Tim Hasselbeck, the quarterback-turned-ESPN analyst, suggested this week the frequency of Newton’s running might be responsible for his shaky accuracy.
“There’s other guys that have said sometimes his running helps his accuracy. So maybe they ought to get together,” Shula said, smiling. “I don’t think it’s his running, unless it’s something where he’s just kind of worn out. He’s just so talented. I think him being in a rhythm both running and throwing has been where he’s been very effective.”
Don’t forget the ground game
Whatever the reason for Newton’s inconsistencies as a passer – his goal was to complete 65 to 70 percent of his passes this season – critics point to his inaccuracy when quashing talk of Newton as MVP.
Taking Newton’s midseason numbers and projecting them over 16 games would put him at the bottom in nearly every passing category compared to the past seven quarterbacks to win MVP.
Aaron Rodgers’ 65.6 percent completion rate in 2014 is the lowest among the past seven quarterbacks to win, and that’s still considerably higher than Newton’s mark.
Of course, Rodgers’ 269 rushing yards last season were the most in that group of MVP-winning quarterbacks – a total Newton has already surpassed in eight games.
Only two running backs – Devonta Freeman (nine) and Chris Ivory (six) – have more rushing touchdowns this season than Newton (five).
“In Cam’s case, it’s interesting because you’ve got to kind of look at the details to really be convinced. If you look at the stats there’s no chance, right?” said Bell, the USA Today columnist. “Even with him being a running quarterback, you say, ‘How many touchdowns and what’s the completion percentage?’ But as you watch them play and watch what he does to impact the games, then his case is so strong.”
New name, different game
Bell said if he were voting today, he’d go with Brady, who was MVP in 2007 and 2010. The Patriots went 18-0 in 2007 before losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl, a season during which Brady threw 50 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
But Bell said the fact that Newton has never been in the running for the award could help him, much like the groundswell of support last year for Houston defensive end J.J. Watt.
“If it was Tom Brady versus Aaron Rodgers versus Peyton Manning, these guys who have won this award before, you can slice it up a lot of different ways,” Bell said. “But once you get somebody in the mix who hasn’t been in that conversation before, I think it gives them a little momentum.”
History seems to be working against a dual-threat quarterback such as Newton, who went to the Pro Bowl after the 2011 and 2013 seasons. Seattle’s Russell Wilson led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl the past two seasons but did not receive a single MVP vote either year.
“There’s a guy that’s won a lot of football games but somehow never seems to be at the top of the conversation about (MVP),” Rivera said of Wilson. “You watch Tom Brady. He’s got the great stats. But to me more than anything else it’s about winning. Right now that’s what’s happening with our guy.”
Bell believes the fact that people are talking about Newton as a MVP candidate is a good thing.
“I think it really does speak to what you always hoped the award would be,” Bell said. “It’s based on being most valuable, not necessarily the most outstanding or the biggest stats or whatever.”
Comparing quarterback MVPs
In the past 10 season, a quarterback has won the MVP eight times. When you compare Cam Newton’s projected 2015 season totals with those previous MVPs, his rushing totals are greater but his passing completion rate is much lower.
Tom Brady, Patriots
Peyton Manning, Colts
Peyton Manning, Colts
Tom Brady, Patriots
Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Peyton Manning, Broncos
Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Cam Newton, Panthers
Source: STATs Inc.