The question ran rampant throughout Twitter after the Carolina Pantherslavished a five-year, $103.8 million extension on a quarterback with a 30-31-1 career record as a starter. The outrage took me by surprise; this is, after all, a quarterback-driven league, and while Newton might not be a prototypical pocket passer at this point in his career, he has special traits that can enable him to carry the Panthers far, as a review of the All-22 Coaches Film confirmed.
The book on Cam Newton
The first overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft is not the prototypical quarterback that every coordinator covets, but he is a new-school playmaker with the talent to put an offense on his back. Checking in at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds with speed (4.59-second 40-yard dash) and explosive athleticism, Newton is an exceptional dual-threat playmaker adept at delivering big gains while directing the Panthers' modified version of a read-option attack. His 2,571 rushing yards are the most by a quarterback in his first four NFL seasons in the Super Bowl era (Michael Vick ranks second, with 2,223 yards). His 115 total touchdowns are the third-most by a quarterback through Year 4 of his career -- only Dan Marino (144) and Peyton Manning (118) had more.
I'm convinced Newton is the most physical runner I've seen at the quarterback position. Capable of running through defenders in the hole, he also displays the speed and elusiveness to slip past guys on the perimeter. As a result, he's a threat to tuck it and run at any time, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. As a passer, he's been roundly criticized for his lack of accuracy and inconsistent ball placement, but there's no disputing his natural arm talent. He boasts one of the strongest arms in the NFL -- exhibiting exceptional zip, velocity and range, he's able to rifle tightrope throws to every area of the field despite failing to consistently incorporate his lower body.
Newton shows slightly-above-average pocket presence, awareness and anticipation. He is not only capable of fitting the ball into tight windows, but he flashes the ability to "throw receivers open" when he understands exactly where to go with the ball at the top of his drop. Considering Newton's experience directing the spread offense at Auburn, it is not surprising that he excels making quick-rhythm throws from the shotgun. When he is able to "catch, rock and throw" from the pocket, he routinely delivers the ball on time and on target. He is just as effective throwing the ball to receivers on the perimeter following quick play-action fakes on "RPO" (run-pass option) concepts. Newton consistently throws darts on slants, skinny posts and "grab" routes after briefly sticking the ball into the belly of the running back.
On traditional dropback and play-action passes, Newton is a bit inconsistent with his ball placement. Despite his exceptional arm strength and touch, he can fail to deliver the ball within the strike zone due to his shoddy footwork. Newton does not step into his throws, leading the ball to float or sail over the mark. Although Newton's superior arm talent and natural ability allow him to complete a number of passes without using his legs, the two-time Pro Bowler could become a deadly passer with better footwork discipline.
Here are three facets of Newton's game that illustrate his unique abilities -- and show why the Panthers were wise to open their checkbook to lock him up:
1) He's the NFL's most dangerous goal-line specialist.
A quarterback's ability to compile 33 rushing touchdowns in 62 games -- as Newton has -- speaks volumes about his knack for finding the end zone in critical situations. Newton is a special athlete with extraordinary size, strength and athleticism. He has a feel for locating the crease in the middle of the defense, a nose for the goal line and a willingness to sacrifice his body to put the ball in the paint. Newton set an NFL record for rookie quarterbacks with 14 rushing scores, and he continues to be a dominant force in goal-line and short-yardage situations on designed quarterback runs.
Newton showcased his skills as a goal-line specialist against the Cincinnati Bengalsin Week 6 last season, when he scored on a 12-yard run on a quarterback power, as depicted in the video below. The Panthers break the huddle aligned in a power formation, with Newton in the shotgun. Newton takes the snap, pauses for a second, then follows his pulling guard through the hole to the right. The quarterback's exceptional combination of size, strength and power shows when he runs through Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict at the 3-yard line -- then carries cornerback Onterio McCalebb into the end zone as he scores a key touchdown.
2) His improv skills as a dual-threat playmaker make the Panthers go.
Newton's ability to punish opponents with his improvisational flair is what most concerns defensive coordinators. Coaches struggle crafting plans to attack Newton because he has the agility and elusiveness to escape danger, and because he's an explosive dual-threat playmaker when he leaves the pocket, whether he's under duress or executing a cleverly designed zone-read play. His on-the-fly prowess is a game-changer.
In the play depicted below, from the Panthers' Week 9 loss to the Saints last season, Newton uses his awareness and evasiveness to score against a perfectly designed blitz from New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Carolina is aligned in a trio formation, with the X taking a "nasty" split. The Saints are bringing pressure on a crash blitz, with the outside linebacker and nickel corner coming from the defensive left. Newton should be able to anticipate the pressure based on the alignment of the safeties prior to the snap (close alignment directly behind the assigned blitzers gives away the play). He feels the pressure at the top of his drop and uses his athleticism to escape around the corner. Newton exploits the blitz and scores a touchdown on a play that appeared doomed at the start (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, from the Panthers' Week 11 loss to the Falcons, Newton provides another example of why he drives defensive coordinators crazy. Carolina is aligned in a trips bunch formation to the left, with Kelvin Benjamin positioned at X on the right. The Falcons are bringing double A-gap pressure with their MLB and SS. Newton feels the pocket collapsing at the top of his drop and works to his right to escape the defensive end. Most importantly, he keeps his eyes downfield, eventually delivering a dart to Benjamin along the sideline for a big first down (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
3) His big arm complements a run-first attack.
Critics will ding Newton for his sub-60 career completion percentage (59.5), but his value as a deep-ball thrower offsets his inconsistencies as a precise passer. Newton is at his best pushing the ball down the field on vertical throws, which makes him dangerous on play-action passes with one-on-one coverage on the perimeter.
During his first two pro seasons, with Steve Smith entrenched as the WR1 in a vertical-based offense (and with then-offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski calling plays), Newton averaged 7.8 and 8.0 yards per attempt, respectively. He used his superior arm strength and range to amass 20 completions of 40-plus yards in that time span, showing the football world that he'd developed into one of the best deep-ball passers in the NFL.
Carolina's current Mike Shula-led offense features more short and intermediate throws that require precise ball placement (which is not necessarily Newton's strength). But the fifth-year pro still shines when allowed to take his shots down the field, routinely dropping the ball down the chute and leading the receiver away from coverage.
In the play depicted below, which also came from the Panthers' Week 11 game against Atlanta, Newton flashes his big arm and solid deep-ball skills on a touchdown pass to Philly Brown. Newton takes the snap from an offset I-formation, which suggests a run on first down. He fakes the ball to DeAngelo Williams, then looks to take a shot downfield against one-on-one coverage. Brown blows past the defender on a go-route and settles under a perfectly thrown pass in the front corner of the end zone. Given Newton's arm strength and range, the Panthers should build around their franchise player's skills as a superb deep-ball thrower (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Overall, Newton is a top-15 quarterback with the athleticism and arm talent to develop into an elite player at the position. While the skeptics question whether Newton can lead the Panthers to Super Bowl as a dual-threat playmaker, I believe he can certainly get the Panthers to the promised land -- albeit in his own fashion.