The Truth About Cam Newton's Impact on the Carolina Panthers

It can be argued that no player in the NFL was more important to his team than Cam Newton. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

This is my cathartic close to the debate that raged over Cam Newton's rookie season, and whether or not he was 'overrated'. Yesterday I attempted to clear up some common misconceptions that have been leveled against Newton's year, as I looked at his role and impact not solely from a statistic angle, but an empirical one. This is something I feel is too often lacking in modern reportage, and holding to an antiquated notion of sports as art, rather than science.

Today I'm swinging to the other end of the spectrum and delivering objective, third-party facts on just how much of a difference Cam Newton made to the Carolina Panthers. No metric is as important to whether a player is over or underrated than their individual impact to their football team. Some settle on wins and losses, but this look at the Panthers improvement goes deeper than that. Obviously it's absurd to suggest a rookie deserves an MVP award, because this phrase has been appropriated to simply mean 'best'. While Cam Newton clearly wasn't the best player in the NFL, a strong argument can be made than no player was more important to his team than Newton.

Yesterday Football Outsiders released their yearly almanac. As always it's an amazing purchase for any NFL fan with a penchant for advanced statistics. According to FO the Carolina Panthers improved their DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) from -35.8% in 2010, to 18.2% in 2011-- a staggering 54% swing. This wasn't just the best improvement in the NFL last year, it was the best improvement in the NFL in the last twenty years. Was some of that attributable to the coaching staff? Absolutely, but it's foolish to fail to acknowledge the primary reason was Newton.

More after the jump

It's here that I need to point out my background as it applies to Cam Newton. For those who have read my work for a while you know that I wasn't exactly the biggest champion of Newton leading up to the 2011 draft. I had serious concerns about his footwork, his progression through receivers, and an overconfidence in arm strength over stepping into his passes. The off-field stuff never really bothered me, but I saw football deficiencies. Thankfully having Newton work with now QB guru Chris Weinke (I still can't write that without laughing) was the best move the Panthers ever made, and the player who arrived in Spartanburg for training camp was completely different to the one we saw on film at Auburn.

"You (Newton) worked on your delivery and mechanics with guru-for-hire Chris Weinke, but c'mon, it was Chris Weinke, for heaven's sake. This was not quite a recipe for disaster, but it was a recipe for 20 interceptions, 45 sacks, a few hundred rushing yards, and a 4-12 record. No one knew that Weinke had reinvented himself as the Quarterback Whisperer who could teach proper dropbacks and throwing motions in a few simple lessons."

- Mike Tanier, Football Outsiders

Newton's abilities on the field went beyond solely improving the offense as a whole, but rather permeated all elements of the system. Converting a laughable 30.3% of third downs in 2010, the Newton led Panthers improved this mark to 40.5% in 2011. When it was time for Rob Chudzinski to need a critical third down, he turned to Newton who had a 100% success rate picking up third downs running when the Panthers needed three yards or less.

Detractors will point to the lockout, shortened preparedness for defenses, and sub-par competition as reasons why Newton succeeded, yet all of these factors are countered in the DVOA metric. It's a figure that normalizes the competition, and puts everyone on as equal a playing field as possible. If you're looking for outliers to skew a player's ability it would be sniffed out by DVOA, yet no such luck, as Tanier points out.

The 2011 Panthers achieved the largest single-season offensive DVOA improvement in history, by a wide margin. [...] you were the only rookie quarterback to spark such a DVOA turnaround.

Andy Dalton's team didn't take advantage of this lockout, neither did Tim Tebow's. Surely if unprepared defenses made life easy for offenses then we'd see the Bengals and Broncos take similar leaps, wouldn't we? Not so, as Cincinnati finished with a 3.5% improvement, and Denver fell -3.7%; to again contrast, the Panthers improved 54%.

The offense improved from worst in the NFL to 4th, and the defense fell from 24th in the NFL to worst-- looking for a reason why the Panthers were 6-10? That's it. You can over think it, try to look for another reason, and keep forcing a round peg into a square hole, but the reality is that Newton had no real impact on the Panthers ten losses. Could he have taken better care of the football at times? Sure, but without him every game is a blowout.

It would be both foolish, and egotistical to think this piece, or any other really has the power to change someone's perceptions. If you already have a predilection for thinking Newton is overrated then you're not going to buy any of this, and instead trying to reason it away with your own home spun theories. Right now when discussing Cam Newton football fans are falling into one of three camps.

The first were always right about his ability, and had faith since day one that he'd be as dynamic in the NFL as he was in college, these people are few and far between.

The second are pushing their chips to the center and going all in to sell the notion of a 'sophomore slump', because they're backed into a corner, and all in is what desperate people do. They refuse to accept Newton was better than their expectations, and are trying to set the odds in their favor. Either Newton regresses and they can preen like peacocks, or he doesn't and they can skulk back into the shadows after buying twelve months to distance themselves from their opinions.

The final group, the one I belong to, doubted Cam Newton's ability in the NFL, and was extremely concerned about the possibility of transforming into a dynamic NFL quarterback. Now, after watching a full season of his play we're prepared to admit we were wrong. Joining me in this group is Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders.

Dear Cam Newton,
On behalf of doubters everywhere, we would like to apologize. We thought you were just another spread-option scrambler destined to suffer through a rough rookie year on a last-place team. We misjudged you. Badly. [...] We hope you understand why we made the mistakes we made, wrote the things we wrote and projected the numbers we projected. [...] We are skeptics, by nature and profession, and we were forced to conclude that you were not ready to perform well, based on all available evidence.We were not just wrong, but totally wrong. You did not just play well. You accomplished the unprecedented.

I'm sure Cam accepts your apology, and has replaced any doubting articles written with the next in line, waiting to be disproven.

So ends my look at Cam Newton in 2011. From here out I'll be focusing on Newton's impact in Spartanburg, and beyond. Please think about purchasing the 2012 Almanac from Football Outsiders, which help inspire much of this piece. They do amazing work, and deserve your support.

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