Cam Newton and the Elephant in the Room


The quarterback position is clearly the most important on the football field. He is the face of the team, and—fairly or unfairly—will get the most praise or blame depending on the outcome of a given game.

We’re quick to label or our quarterbacks, as well. They’re either winners are losers.

Tom Brady has always been a winner and with good reason…his teams always seem to win. Peyton Manning, on the other hand, was a loser. Then he won and wasn't a loser anymore. The same with Mark Sanchez, but only the opposite: at the beginning of his career, he was just a winner. Then the Jets defense started to regress, and now he’s the worst thing to ever happen to football in New York. And the list of winning quarterbacks who all of a sudden weren’t winners anymore (or the inverse) goes on and on.

The point I’m trying to make is: It’s all crap. There are good players and there are bad players. If you’re a good quarterback surrounded by good players, you win. If you’re bad surrounded by bad players, you lose.

Manning was never a loser; he just ran into better teams. Sanchez was never really a winner; he just happened to be on a team with a dominating defense.

And that brings us to Cam Newton. After a spectacular rookie season—maybe the most impressive in the history of the league—he seemingly finds himself outside of the "Best Young QB" discussion. The reason: he hasn’t proven he can win in the NFL.

On the surface, it makes some sense; after all, he’s put up a 13-19 record in two seasons with the Panthersa mark Carolina GM Dave Gettleman called "the elephant in the room."

But how much does the Panthers’ record over the last two years really speak to Newton’s ability to win?

To answer that question, I applied a "junk stat" used by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell to evaluate Joe Flacco’s status as a winner.

Barnwell explains his methodology:

That's where I got the idea for a junk stat that might put Flacco's gaudy record in its proper perspective. There's a simple way to measure the benefit Flacco gets from his defense: Account for points allowed. By building a baseline for how frequently a quarterback wins with a given number of points allowed, it's possible to get a vague estimate of how he's performing versus expectations.

I built models for each three-year period from 1993 through to 2011 that estimated a team's percentage of winning, given a certain point total (with some smoothing)… take Flacco's first career win, a 17-10 victory over the Bengals in Week 1 of the 2008 season. As you might suspect, teams who only allow 10 points win that game very frequently; by my count, within that given three-year time frame and incorporating games in which teams allowed eight to 12 points, a quarterback will win that game 86.5 percent of the time. Since Flacco won, he's credited with .135 wins over expectation. Had his team lost, Flacco would have produced -0.865 wins.

I found one flaw with Barnwell’s stat: While it does measure how much the defense helps a certain team -- and, in turn, the quarterback -- win, it doesn’t really measure the quarterback’s total impact. A better way to look at a quarterback’s impact would be to measure how much his offense scores rather than how much the defense gives up.

Take the Panthers’ 30-3 loss to the Titans in 2011, for example. In the last three years, if a team’s defense gives up 27 to 31 points, that team has won those games only 22.6 percent of the time. Given the Panthers’ putrid three-point output, should Newton really only be punished with -0.226 wins? Had the defense given up only six points, Carolina still would have lost. Wouldn’t it be more telling if we looked at how often a quarterback is expected to win given the number of points his offense scores?

So I took Barnwell’s concept and flipped it. So when The Panthers scored 21 points in Newton’s debut in Arizona in 2011, he was credited with 0.362 wins, because teams that have scored between 17 and 21 points have won 36.2 percent of games over the last three seasons.

Here's the expected winning-percentage based on point totals, if you're interested in doing your own analysis:


Given the point totals the Panthers’ offense put up in 2011, Newton could have expected to win 9.6 wins in his rookie season.

To put that in perspective, Robert Griffin III led this year’s rookie class with 8.9 expected wins. Russell Wilson came in second with 8.8 expected wins, and Andrew Luck finished with 8.3 expected wins. For how much adoration those three signal-callers got last season (and deservedly so), Newton’s rookie season was arguably more impressive than their fantastic debuts.

If you add in Newton sophomore season, his numbers take a bit of a dip, but not a big one. After 32 games, he' put up 17.4 expected wins (which is still far better than his actual 13-19 record) or 8.7 a season—that’s not far off from what Griffin and Wilson did last season and it still ranks ahead of Luck.

Unfortunately for Newton, he doesn’t play defense or special teams—which has really been this team’s biggest weakness over the last two seasons—so the results aren’t entirely in his hands. Taking this into account, doesn't labeling him as a "loser," seem a bit unfair—especially for a guy who won two national championships in college in his only two seasons as a starter?

Obviously this stat isn’t the be-all-end-all, as it doesn’t only account for the quarterback’s importance, but also the performance of the receivers, offensive line and running backs. But it certainly tells an interesting story that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes time for contract negotiations with Newton next year.

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