Dave Glenn is a North Carolina-based sports radio guy, broadcasting from the Triangle area from the ESPN radio affiliate in Raleigh. He’s generally really good – extremely well-informed (especially about the ACC, about which he’s been publishing a journal for many years), smart and substantive.
Two days ago, however, he made a comment about Panthers’ QB Cam Newton that took me by surprise. Newton, the former Heisman trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, has been Carolina’s starting QB since the day he arrived. The pick was actually quite controversial, and lots of local commentators slammed the Panthers for picking Newton first. Yes, he’d just won the Heisman and led Auburn to a national championship. And yes, he’s big and fast and has a big arm. But he’d only played one year of major college football, had significant off-the-field issues and was considered raw and immature.
Newton came firing out of the gate, setting records in his first two games for rookie QBs, playing an exciting and sometimes dazzling style. He’s a great QB for fantasy leagues, because of all the points he racks up running the football (he scored 14 rushing TDs his rookie season). But he’s had his ups and downs and the Panthers have, at no point in his now two and half years as starter, had a winning record (they are now 3-3). Newton took over a 2-14 team and the Panthers have been very competitive since he arrived. But they’ve lost a lot of close games, Newton has been mistake prone at times, and frustration with him (and coach Ron Rivera) has been growing.
On Sunday, the Panthers won handily, 30-15, against the Rams. Newton played an especially efficient game, completing 15 of 17 passes running a ball control offense, not throwing a pick and finishing the game with a QB rating of 136.3. On the season, Newton’s rating is 95, good for tenth in the NFL. Not bad, I would have thought, for a young quarterback.
Glenn was less impressed. While praising Newton’s performance on Sunday, Glenn hoped that Newton was perhaps maturing to the point that he was no longer putting padding his stats ahead of the team’s success. He also said it had taken too long for Newton to reach this point.
This got me to wondering – how have other quarterbacks fared at similar points in their careers. There are many to choose from, of course. But for the sake of convenience, and for other reasons, I will get to, I looked at the Manning brothers.
Let’s start with Peyton, generally considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, the “consummate professional,” and a guy who I don’t think I’ve ever heard accused of putting his personal stats ahead of team success.
One simple way to evaluate this is to look at interception rate. Implicit in the stat-padding accusation is a QB who’s willing to squeeze the ball into tight coverage, rather than eat it or throw it away. I frankly think it’s bizarre to presume that the motivation for doing so is that Newton, say, is sitting back there thinking, “I could take the sack, but man, my stats would look so much better if I could pick up an extra twenty yards on this throw.” He might be exhibiting poor judgment at times (and as a running QB, a whole other set of decision-making issues are coming into play), but the presumption that he’s doing what he’s doing for personal statistics strikes me as ridiculous.
In any event, as it happens, early in his career, Peyton Manning was fairly interception prone. He threw a league high 28 in his rookie season, 1998. In his second season, he cut that number almost in half, and finished thirteenth in the league in interception rate. His numbers were almost identical in season three. In 2001, his fourth season, he took a step backward, throwing 23 picks and finishing third from the bottom in interception rate, just ahead of the estimable Trent Green and Tim Couch. In year five, he was in the lower half of the league in interception rate. Only in his sixth season, 2003, as Bill Polian noted on ESPN radio last week, did Peyton emerge as the fully formed, impeccable decision-maker we now know.
How does Cam stack up to that? In his first season, 2011, Newton threw 17 picks and finished 24th out of 34 qualifying QBs in interception rate. In his second season, Newton threw 12 picks and finished 15th. And so far this year, he’s thrown five interceptions in six games, placing him 22nd out of 33 qualifying QBs (there are fewer interceptions thrown nowadays than was true a decade ago, which is why I am giving the relative league ranking). Newton, by the way, ranks a very respectable tenth in the league in passer rating this season.
There are, of course, other factors to consider. But without question, the single statistic most emblematic of recklessness or poor decision-making among quarterbacks is throwing interceptions. And by that measure, Newton’s early career is more or less indistinguishable from Peyton’s. From where, therefore, does the claim come that he’s spent too much time trying to pad his stats and is taking too long to grow up and put his team first.
Newton, it should be noted, doesn’t have stellar pieces around him. His primary running backs have been DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. This is not exactly Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris. The offense line is subpar. He has one excellent target to throw to, Steve Smith.
What about Eli? It’s well known that the younger Manning has always tended to throw a lot of interceptions. Since 2010, he leads the NFL. In 2013, his tenth year in the league and ninth as a full-time starter, he’s dead last in number of picks and interception rate. In 2012, when Newton finished 15th in interception rate, Eli finished 20th. Once in his career has Eli been in the top half of the league in that category. Look, despite their reputation, until recently, as a running-oriented offense, the Giants have had a down-the-field passing attack since Eli became the starter. They do not run a West Coast offense with lots of low risk throws. And Eli’s had some big yardage years as a result. But I can tell you this – I follow the Giants very closely and I can tell you that I have *never* heard anyone accuse Eli of putting his individual stats ahead of the team.
Let me put this more pointedly – if Cam Newton had Eli’s numbers (and we’re talking about veteran Eli, not young Eli), we’d be hearing about nothing else but his immaturity and selfishness. By the way, three times between 2005 and 2010, the veteran Brett Favre was the worst or second worst QB in the league in interception rate. And what was the term typically used to describe Favre? Gunslinger. That is a word, I daresay, I’ve never heard applied to a black quarterback. Jay Cutler is now an eight year veteran. Within the last two weeks, I saw him referred to as a gunslinger. He’s 26th in the NFL in interception rate (and this, before his injury, in a season in which he was generally being praised for his performance).
But Cam Newton is taking too long to stop thinking about his stats.
There’s been a genuine revolution in the NFL when it comes to accepting the idea that black quarterbacks can play the position, can start right away and can be key to Super Bowl contending teams. Russell Wilson, RGIII and Colin Kaepernick have recently been at the leading edge of that wave. But a clear double standard remains (which doesn’t require malicious intent to persist), and the young, already good and steadily improving Cam Newton is Exhibit A.
Update: Just heard Boomer Esiason, on CBS sports radio, comment that: “Cam Newton is *finally* understanding that protecting the ball and throwing to the check down actually wins games in the NFL.” All of six games into his third season – what a slow learner…