He set out to be an entertainer and an icon, and in his third season Cam Newton has delivered the Panthers to their first winning campaign since 2008. The NFC South crown could be theirs, depending on two meetings with the Saints in the next three weeks. As for the quarterback who fancies himself Superman, he could go even farther if he started emulating Drew Brees
Cam Newton has some attributes that can’t be taught: his 6-5, 245-pound size, his 4.6 speed, his lateral flexibility and his Colt 45 of an arm.
Drew Brees is a less striking physical specimen at 6-0, 210 pounds, but he has put together a Hall of Fame career by mastering the attributes that can be taught but are difficult to learn, such as pocket presence and precision accuracy. Acuity in those departments allows a QB to read the field, which Brees does as expertly as anyone who’s ever played the position.
Come Sunday night, these two quarterbacks will square off in the first of two meetings over the next three weeks that will likely decide the NFC South crown. Newton has guided the Panthers to an unexpected 9-3 record by relying heavily on his attributes that can’t be taught. His 447 rushing yards rank third among quarterbacks; his six rushing touchdowns are first. His powerful arm has converted 28 times on third-and-10-or-longer, fifth most in the NFL.
While Newton’s flash plays have helped guide Carolina to its first winning season since 2008, history shows that an offense will eventually fail to sustain its success if it’s too reliant on its quarterback’s flash plays. You might recall the Eagles with Randall Cunningham, the Cardinals with Jake Plummer or the Falcons with Michael Vick. Of course, Newton’s flash plays aren’t the sole driving force behind Carolina’s turnaround season. That would be the defense, which is allowing an NFL-low 13.1 points per game and ranks first against the pass, second against the run and has a league-leading 26 takeaways.
Even with a dominant defense, a good offense is essential to being a legit contender in today’s NFL. Carolina’s offense has potentially fatal flaws—a rushing attack that depends too much on deception and a front line that’s prone to protection breakdowns against quality bull-rushers—but Newton’s playmaking prowess has so far masked them. Titles aren’t won wearing masks, though. Carolina’s Super Bowl chances, now and in the coming years, hinge on its passing game. Though dangerous, the current passing game is too uneven. For that to change, Newton must become more like Brees.
Becoming more like Brees doesn’t mean discarding the sandlot skills that make Newton so unique. Rather, it means mastering those three critical attributes that can be difficult to learn: pocket presence, precision accuracy and reading the field. Newton is still at the 101 level in each subject.
Pocket presence entails having a feel for the pass rush and having the footwork to maneuver around it without sacrificing your readiness to throw. Newton has the toughness and Roethlisberger-esque strength to make plays from the pocket, even when encountering contact. But Carolina’s passing attack won’t routinely perform at a high level until he learns to avoid that contact altogether—without compromising the play design.
Overall, Newton must become more consistent with his footwork and throwing mechanics. On some series, he’s flawless. On others, he looks like he’s never been coached. This inconsistency is the main reason behind his poor precision accuracy—which is the ability to not just put the ball on a receiver, but to put it on him in ways that maximizes the catch. (Think of a pass hitting a crossing receiver in stride, allowing for yards after the catch, or a back-shoulder throw dragging a receiver away from tight coverage.) For someone with the arm to make any throw, Newton misses far too many.
Most of his “misses” show up as incompletions, but they also get hidden in underachieving completed passes. Newton is averaging just 7.15 yards per attempt, 15th among starting quarterbacks. In a system that features so many downfield and intermediate routes such as Carolina’s, he should be somewhere around 8.3 yards, which Brees is getting for New Orleans.
Precision accuracy isn’t the only factor in this equation. Brees maximizes his completions by also anticipating throwing windows before they open. It’s a hallmark of savvy field-reading. Newton, on the other hand, is a “see it passer,” meaning he has to actually see the open window before pulling the trigger. It’s hard to play like this in the NFL, but Newton’s arm strength can often make up for it. Still, opportunities are missed. The graphics below show just one of many examples from this season.
Most disconcerting about Newton’s mistakes is how regularly they occur under perfect conditions (like the play above). And a lot of the mistakes are basic, yet repeated. To be fair, his repeating the same mistakes is becoming less frequent, but they’re still happening too often. If Newton is to be held to the highest standards—and shouldn’t a former No. 1 pick be judged so?—then he must develop better discipline.
This is his only chance at becoming a savvy field-reader, which is vital because there seems to be a blueprint for stopping him. The Panthers have faced six defenses that play straight 4-3 concepts on the majority of downs and use few blitz or coverage disguises. Against these teams—Seattle, the New York Giants, Minnesota, St. Louis, New England and Tampa Bay (twice)—Newton has completed 69% of his passes, thrown 15 touchdowns, three interceptions and taken just 11 sacks. His passer rating is 114.4.
The Panthers’ other five games have been against defenses that tend to use more hybrid concepts to dial up exotic pressures and coverage rotations. Against these teams—Buffalo, Arizona, Atlanta, Miami and San Francisco (which typically plays straight man-to-man but deviated against Carolina)—Newton’s numbers changed dramatically: 54% completion rate; four touchdowns; eight interceptions; 20 sacks and a 62.1 rating.
There are always exceptions to rules. Static defenses occasionally change looks and hybrid defenses can sometimes be predictable. But the sizeable statistical difference in these categories makes it irrefutable: Carolina’s self-proclaimed Superman isn’t so super against amorphous, largely 3-4-based, hybrid defenses.
Which brings us to the New Orleans Saints.
As galvanizing as coach Sean Payton’s return from his 2012 suspension has been, New Orleans’ rebound from last year’s miserable 7-9 finish can be attributed mainly to an improved defense. Even after last Monday night’s 34-7 thrashing in Seattle, the Saints (9-3) have gone from having one of the worst defenses in football to one of the best, according to just about every statistical measure. Most telling: They finished 31st in points allowed and 32nd in yards last season, but are now sixth and eighth, respectively. New coordinator Rob Ryan hasn’t been as variegated or aggressive with his scheme as people might think, but that could change on Sunday night given Newton’s track record. Ryan is as good as any at tailoring game plans for specific opponents.
Against Newton, this would mean using coverage rotations and amoeba pre-snap blitz looks so that what he sees after the snap is different from his initial assessment. With safeties Kenny Vaccaro, Malcom Jenkins and Roman Harper capable of playing multiple positions in New Orleans’ “big nickel” base defense, Ryan has great athletic diversity and speed with which to craft disguises. Though all three safeties are good blitzers, Ryan must be judicious with pressure concepts. Blitzes often require man coverage downfield, which is liable to create running lanes for Newton. Ryan’s best approach would be to show blitz before the snap, drop into a rotating zone coverage after the snap and trust that his ascending defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette can continue creating their own pressure with stunts and twists.
The Panthers know how important self-generated pressure can be for a defensive line. Carolina’s defense wouldn’t be the best in football (first in points allowed, second in yards allowed) if not for Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. The two defensive linemen have been dominant, particularly when playing side-by-side in nickel. A potent four-man pass rush, along with the dynamic speed and play recognition of linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, means the Panthers can prosper even with a ho-hum secondary that usually employs a fairly simplistic zone scheme. (That said, coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott have been adding more aggressive wrinkles with coverage rotations and safety blitzes in recent weeks.)
Carolina’s defense has thrived with a model that’s conducive to consistency, while New Orleans’ D has improved with a model that changes week-to-week and is inherently riskier. The Saints are comfortable with this because Brees gives them veritable offensive stability to fall back on.
It’s precisely what the Panthers need from their QB. Newton’s quarterbacking will never be exactly the same as Brees’s; they’re two completely different brands of players. But if Newton can strive to become like Brees, he’ll inevitably add dimensions to his game and correct the weaknesses that are capping his greatness. Newton must understand that it’s not a solitary process. He must embrace feedback from those around him—most notably Carolina’s highly regarded first-year quarterbacks coach, Ken Dorsey, and former QBs coach turned offensive coordinator, Mike Shula. Newton’s talent is boundless. His supporting cast is getting better. The Panthers organization, led by the football-savvy Jerry Richardson, is strong. The only person who can stop Newton from becoming an alltime great is Newton himself.
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Believe it or not, Andy Benoit actually studied film for his quick preview of Thursday night’s Jaguars-Texans game. Prime time has never been hotter! Go to page 2 for the scoop on teams that have a combined five wins, plus one more on the way, assuming there isn’t a tie …
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Credits for opening image, from top to bottom, left to right: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images (2) :: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI :: Bob Leverone/AP :: Grant Halverson/Getty Images :: Mike McCann/AP :: Matt York/AP