Carolina Panthers

NFL MVP: Is Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton running away with it?

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has thrown for 3,402 yards and 33 touchdowns through 14 games this season. He also has rushed for 580 yards (4.9 yards per carry average) and 7 rushing touchdowns.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has thrown for 3,402 yards and 33 touchdowns through 14 games this season. He also has rushed for 580 yards (4.9 yards per carry average) and 7 rushing touchdowns. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

With two weeks left in the regular season and votes due the Monday after the final whistle, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award appears to be Cam Newton’s to lose.

Let’s let Carolina Panthers second-year receiver Philly Brown lay out the basics.

“What’s our record?” he asked.

Fourteen and zero.

“He’s the best player on a 14-0 team,” Brown said. “That’s who the MVP goes to. The MVP is the most valuable player to your team, and right now that’s what he is.”

That’s the simplistic look at it, but a lot of times that’s all it takes. More times than not, the winner of the MVP award is the quarterback on the best team in the NFL.

But Newton isn’t going to stump for himself.

“It’s irrelevant to me right now. With this game meaning so much for us, I have no time to even think about it,” Newton said Wednesday. “You hear it. I think the individualism will take over if I start worrying about that, per se, rather than getting our 15th win.”

Not only would Newton be the first member of the Carolina Panthers to win the award, he’d be the first to receive a vote for it.

But it’s not that easy for Newton, at least according to some. There is stiff competition from three other quarterbacks having stellar years, and not everyone is convinced Newton is the league’s best player.

Pro Football Focus pointed to a strong running game with Jonathan Stewart, strong tight end play from Greg Olsen, a cohesive offensive line and a top-10 defense as the main reasons Newton is having such success.

“It’s fair to question the talent level of Carolina’s wide receivers,” PFF wrote. “But the reality is that Newton has one of the better overall supporting casts in the NFL.”

Then consider the quarterbacks who have won the award since 2007. Compared with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers from their MVP-winning seasons, Newton is projected to finish with the fewest completions, attempts, passing yards and yards per attempt of them all. His completion percentage would be the lowest by seven percentage points.

His 38 touchdowns would be tied for third-fewest, his 98.9 passer rating second-worst and his 11 interceptions the second-most of them all.

“The quarterback’s got the ball in his hands every play. And if your quarterback’s playing well, that’s going to lead your offense and hopefully lead your team,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “It’s the ultimate team sport. And you know Cam, he really kind of could care less about his stats. Other than just winning, that’s all he wants to do.”

While that’s a convenient answer to clean up any worries about Newton’s passing statistics, the statistical argument against Newton regularly – and also conveniently – leaves out his rushing ability.

With 580 rushing yards already this year, Newton is on pace to finish with his third-highest rushing total of his career. No quarterback has more rushing yards than Newton this season.

Only one quarterback other than Newton – Randall Cunningham in 1990 – has passed for 3,000 yards, rushed for 500 yards and thrown for at least 30 touchdowns.

Newton has also led the Panthers to four comeback victories in the fourth quarter this season. He did it in Seattle by completing 14-of-15 fourth-quarter throws. He then did it at home against Indianapolis when Carolina became the first team in NFL history to win a game after trailing in overtime.

And most recently he did it in New Orleans and in New York. He is tied with three other quarterbacks for the most game-winning drives this season.

So who’s the MVP?

“Oh, Cam,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “I really don’t even think it’s close. Maybe that’s probably a bad statement. There are a lot of talented guys like Brady and Carson Palmer.

“The quarterback of an undefeated team, not only do you contribute in the passing but do what he does in the running game – he’s the only guy in the league who’s asked to do what he is – I don’t know how many more boxes you have to check before you get that.”

Here’s a look at the three other MVP candidates and the arguments you could make for and against them.

The argument for Tom Brady

Everyone around him has been dropping like flies.

In the beginning of the season it was the shuffling of his offensive line. It looked like another innovation of Bill Belichick, but really it was out of necessity because of all the injuries up front.

Then, in November, he lost his top receiver, Julian Edelman, for what could be the rest of the regular season. Two weeks later tight end Rob Gronkowski, the most complete tight end in football, injured his knee and missed a game.

On top of all that, the Patriots have placed their No. 1 and No. 2 running backs on season-ending injured reserve. How can you have a passing game if you can’t even open it up with the running game?

Still, the Patriots are 12-2. Brady has passed for more yards (4,405) than anyone else in the league, and has thrown a league-high 35 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.

The argument against Brady

With Brady and the others on this list, the best argument is pointing to Newton.

There is no great argument against Brady sans Newton. The best one you could muster is that his numbers aren’t as amazing as they were in 2007 and 2010 when he won the MVP.

In 2007 he passed for 50 touchdowns and completed 69 percent of his passes. In 2010 he only threw four interceptions and had a league-high passer rating of 111.

This year he’s only throwing touchdowns on 6.1 percent of his passes, far lower than the MVP years of 8.7 and 7.3.

Is it unfair to judge Brady against himself from previous years and not today’s competition? Of course it is. But when you get to his level, which is arguably the greatest of all time, that’s the standard measure.

The argument for Carson Palmer

Consider the Cardinals team that came to Charlotte last year in the playoffs and didn’t have a chance in the wild-card game.

This 12-2 Cardinals team is basically the same team, but with Palmer.

Also consider that Palmer is doing this on his second ACL reconstruction.

And finally, much like Brady, he has gone through two running backs already this season.

Palmer is getting some of the worst pass protection in the NFL and he’s still putting up the best numbers of his career.

He already has 4,277 passing yards, 32 passing touchdowns, and he’s averaging 8.8 yards per attempt – all the best of his career.

Palmer’s nine interceptions are the fewest of his career in a non-injury-shortened season.

He hasn’t thrown an interception since before Thanksgiving and the Cardinals haven’t lost since Oct. 18.

The argument against Palmer

After starting the season on fire, his production has cooled in recent weeks. He hasn’t thrown an interception in the past four weeks, but he has also only accounted for six touchdowns.

His team dropped a close one to the St. Louis Rams, who are already eliminated from playoff contention, and he could only muster 13 points against the Steelers in the October loss in Pittsburgh.

Take a look at his receivers and you’ll realize why he has such gaudy passing statistics. Larry Fitzgerald will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years after he retires and he’s working mostly in the slot.

Fitzgerald, 32, already has his seventh 1,000-yard season with two games left. Speedster John Brown has been great in his second year and is well on his way to 1,000 yards. And Michael Floyd is averaging 16 yards per catch this season.

Palmer could be blessed with the best receiving group in the NFL.

The argument for Russell Wilson

He is having the best season of his career and he deserved consideration even before 2015.

He’s completing nearly 69 percent of his passes and has the highest passer rating of all quarterbacks. He already has his career high in passing yards (3,538) and touchdowns (29), and he has tied his career low in interceptions with seven.

Wilson is doing this all without the help of Marshawn Lynch, who is as important – if not more – to Seattle’s offense as Jonathan Stewart is to Carolina’s. Then Lynch’s replacement, Thomas Rawls, went out for the season with an ankle injury.

After a 2-4 start, Wilson and the Seahawks have won seven of their past eight and will be one of the hottest teams in the playoffs. Wilson has thrown 19 touchdowns to zero interceptions in the past five games.

And he’s doing all this with his top two wide receivers coming from the undrafted ranks.

The argument against Wilson

MVPs don’t have to will their teams from a 2-4 start because MVPs don’t let their team dig those kinds of holes.

Wilson’s slow start will ultimately doom him in this race. A hot November and December can’t overcome what we all saw in September and October.

For whatever reason, Wilson has rarely gotten the respect he deserves as a passer. He has led his team to the Super Bowl twice but he’s done it with one of the best defenses in the league.

That may hold some back from voting for him. Seattle is set to have a top-three defense for the third consecutive year – something no other team in the league can say.

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

The contenders

Tom Brady

Veteran quarterback has passed for more yards (4,405) than anyone else in the league and has thrown a league-high 35 touchdown passes and only six interceptions for the 12-2 Patriots.

Carson Palmer

Cardinals (12-2) quarterback has 4,277 passing yards, 32 passing touchdowns, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt (leads the league).

Russell Wilson

He is completing nearly 69 percent of his passes for the Seahawks (9-5) and has the highest passer rating of all quarterbacks (111.4).

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