Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had a season to remember in 2015. He lifted an offense without its number one wide receiver, put it on his back, and carried it to a 15-1 regular season and Super Bowl berth. Excitement was palpable coming into the 2016 season. The Panthers were coming off a season in which they had just led the league in scoring and were now adding Kelvin Benjamin back into the lineup. The last we had seen of the behemoth wide receiver, he was torching the Bills in his only preseason appearance of 2015. Surely his addition would take Cam Newton and the offense to even greater heights.
That didn’t happen.
The Panthers offense came crashing back down to Earth. At the end of the 2016 season, the Panthers found themselves with an offense that was ranked 19th in yardage and 15th in scoring, and the team was out of the playoffs. At the heart of all the criticism was quarterback Cam Newton. The reigning MVP set career lows in completion percentage, passer rating, yards per pass, yards per rush, and rushing yards. His 52.9% completion percentage was the lowest among 30 qualified QBs and was nearly four percentage points worse than the 29th ranked quarterback. On paper, Cam Newton looked like one of the worst QBs in the NFL in 2016. But stats and paper sometimes tell lies.
Cian Fahey took a deeper look into quarterback play in his Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue. If you’re a fan of football and words on pages, I highly recommend you check it out. He has gone through the trouble of charting every pass made by quarterbacks that played extended time and compiled his findings with stats that isolate the quarterback from their teammates and situations. These numbers paint a different picture of Cam Newton’s play in 2016.
The main stat of Fahey’s catalogue is accuracy percentage. This stat measures the percentage of attempted passes that should be caught, discounting plays where the quarterback threw the ball away or was hit while throwing. Cam Newton was accurate on 71.2% of his passes, good for an underwhelming 24th in the league. But look deeper, and you see how impressive that number is. Consider this paragraph from the catalogue:
Newton’s passes travelled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage on average. His 10.76 average depth of target ranked 1st in the league. Only once did Newton have a game where his average depth of target fell below eight yards. For comparison; Sam Bradford’s average depth of target was below eight yards in 13 of his 15 games. The Panthers’ passing game was so aggressive that more of Newton’s passes travelled 21+ yards downfield than did to or behind the line of scrimmage.
It stands to reason that the more frequently a quarterback throws the ball deep, the lower his accuracy rate will be. Cam struggled a bit with his accuracy throwing the ball within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, but he was terrific in every other range. He was the second most accurate quarterback in the league in the 11-20 range and the eighth most accurate on passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air.
Newton wasn’t putting up these deep passing numbers behind a Raider-esque offensive line. The Panthers used the most offensive line combinations in the entire NFL in 2016 and regularly found themselves using 3rd stringers and guys playing out of position to fill the holes. Despite the porous protection in front of him, Newton impressively only took 36 sacks on the season.
So Mike Shula is expecting his quarterback to stand tall in the pocket and deliver deep shots down the field while the offensive line crumbles all around him on a regular basis. You’d like to have receivers that can create separation and give their quarterback some margin for error considering the precarious situation that quarterback finds himself in on a regular basis. The Panthers did not have those guys.
Only one of the 33 quarterbacks that threw at least 200 passes in 2016 was let down by their receivers more. Newton lost 59 receptions to receiver error in just 510 pass attempts. In contrast, his receivers bailed him out just 11 times in those attempts, the 25th worst percentage among those charted. Accounting for these numbers, Newton lost 9.41 percentage points off his completion percentage and 1.48 yards per pass attempt, both most in the league.
You think we’re done with all the bad stuff? Not yet.
There’s one more way Cam Newton’s offensive teammates could help him out - gaining yards after the catch when they actually catch it. They couldn’t do that either. Just 38.24% of Newton’s passing yardage came after the catch, the third lowest mark in the league. The lack of a threat in the screen game didn’t help; only 4.79% of Newton’s passing yards came on screens. Only 4 quarterbacks had a lower percentage.
To summarize Cam Newton’s 2016 season: He was asked to throw long developing passes to receivers that couldn’t get separation or make plays while navigating collapsing pockets and free pass rushers. The Panthers quarterback was consistently let down by his entire supporting cast, yet still managed to keep his team in almost every game. Don’t let the box score numbers and completion percentage fool you. Cam Newton is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He just needs a little help.
Another reminder: Go check out Cian Fahey’s Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue 2017 if you want more information that I didn’t cover here. You can also read fun stuff about how bad Brock Osweiler’s 2016 season was and how overrated Derek Carr and Carson Wentz’s were. It’s an all around great read.