Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has an uncanny ability to make smart people say not smart things about the quarterback position. Nearly every time folks start talking about the league’s best quarterbacks and Newton’s name is brought up in the conversation, someone will say some variation of the following:
But his completion percentage was only 53% last year. That’s not good. Cam Newton can’t be a good quarterback.
[internal screaming intensifies]
Listen, folks. Cam Newton is an accurate quarterback. There’s a difference between completion percentage and accuracy. Don’t believe me? Have a seat and read this...
Cian Fahey wrote a great article for PreSnapReads.com where he dispels the myth that Newton is an inaccurate quarterback. Cat Scratch Reader has covered this topic (and Fahey’s work) in the past, but because the subject keeps coming up in football conversations I’m compelled to talk about it once again.
I strongly recommend you read the entirety of Fahey’s work, but I’m going to share a few snippets from it here.
In the NFL we are still lagging behind in the evolution department. The wider analysis of the NFL focuses on completion percentage and little else when discussing how accurate each player is. For Cam Newton, that’s a problem.
Newton has always had the reputation of an inaccurate passer. His arm strength is such that his passes travel through the air faster than anyone else’s, meaning when he misses even slightly it looks more like a wild miss. Newton has also spent most of his career playing with limited receivers who create tightened windows while playing behind leaky offensive lines. Those are all issues but the primary reason for Newton’s reputation is our bias towards completion percentage.
Completion percentage rewards quarterbacks who throw the ball short all the time.
You don’t have to be a Panthers fan to know that Newton doesn’t throw the ball short that much, and in fairness, it’s the one area he struggles. However, that doesn’t mean he’s inaccurate.
This snippet from Fahey supports this argument:
Newton was the fourth most accurate passer in the league on passes that [traveled] further than five yards downfield. His 68.46 percent mark was only beaten out by Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Newton was second only to Tom Brady in the 11-20 yard range, he was accurate on 70.54 percent of those throws. On 21+ yard throws, Newton ranked eighth with a 49.18 percent accuracy number.
Last year Newton played in an offense that was designed to push the ball down the field with linear receivers who couldn’t run shorter routes to get open. Throwing downfield was difficult, it is difficult in the best of conditions, but especially so because his receivers struggled to get open and he was constantly delivering the ball from condensed pockets. Throwing short was an even greater challenge because receivers such as Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn aren’t good at releasing from the line of scrimmage. Even Greg Olsen is largely just a vertical threat.
Of course his ‘completion percentage’ is going to be lower if he’s making higher risk throws. Despite what Colin Cowherd says, it’s easier (and lazier) to dump the ball off five yards from the line of scrimmage to your running back and let him do all the work instead of throwing it down field to your receivers who may or may not come down with the catch. So why does Newton continue to get so much hate over a number that’s not really even relevant?
In his article on PreSnapReads, Fahey compares Newton to Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who throws (and completes) a lot more short passes than Newton. I’m not going to copy/paste the numbers here (Again, I strongly encourage you to go read the full piece from Fahey.), but I am going to share this snippet that further confirms the ‘Cam Newton is not accurate’ take as a bunch of hooey:
The mention of Cousins brings us to the other necessary qualifier that must be used when it comes to accuracy: Receiver quality. ... NFL quarterbacks are at most 50 percent responsible for whether their passes are complete or not. ... Newton’s receivers are big but they aren’t good. They don’t adjust well to the ball in the air and they can’t create separation. 59 times last year Newton threw an accurate pass only to have his receiver ruin the play. Only Aaron Rodgers lost more receptions to receiver error.
Kelvin Benjamin cost him 13 completions, Ted Ginn cost him 11, Devin Funchess also had 11, Corey Brown six and Greg Olsen six.
If you’ve watched a Panthers game since 2011 you know that there have been plenty of times when Newton has thrown a perfect pass to
Ted Ginn a wide receiver only for the ball to go through the receiver’s hands and fall to the ground.
Kinda like this:
How and why is that Newton’s fault? Yet he almost always gets blamed for those incompletions. An NFL wide receiver is paid to make that catch, regardless of who threw it. So why does Cam get grief for this incomplete pass when other quarterbacks don’t?
This isn’t the only drop that has lowered Newton’s completion percentage. There are plenty of them that have plagued him throughout his career. For a quarterback who throws downfield a lot, these lapses by his receivers severely cripple his completion percentage through no fault of his own.
Fahey has more on this:
When a quarterback throws 600 attempts in a season it only takes 50 plays to move his completion percentage eight percent in either direction. If you have two quarterbacks, one with a great set of receivers and one with an awful set, one who rarely sees any pressure and one who is constantly performing in spite of it, one who rarely pushes the ball downfield and one who lives on short throws, you can very quickly discover that completion percentage is painting a completely misleading picture. Not all quarterbacks throw 600 passes in a season. Someone who throws 400 only needs 40 plays to jump 10 percent.
Cam Newton averaged 488 passes per year* from 2011-2016. His career high for regular season passing attempts is 517, which he set his rookie year. He’s only thrown over 500 times one other year (his 2015 MVP season). So, he only needs around 40 bad plays to drop his completion percentage 10-ish percent.
In 2016 Newton had 59 potential completions ruined by his receivers. So, we can assume that if his receivers wouldn’t have cost him those 59 completions, his completion percentage in 2016 should have been at least 10 percentage points higher than it was. Assuming that’s true, it would have been increased to 62.9%, which would have placed Newton 17th in the league (and 0.01% shy of Eli Manning for 16th place). Does this make Newton the NFL’s most accurate passer? Of course not, and I’m not saying that he is. However, it puts him among quarterbacks that most fans would consider to be ‘accurate’ and renders the criticisms about his ‘accuracy’ unjustified.
Fahey said it best:
Calling Cam Newton inaccurate is ... living in an antiquated world where evaluation relies on surface level stats and as little critical thinking as possible.
Yeah, that sounds about right. The bottom line, folks, is that despite what his completion percentage may tell you, Cam Newton is an accurate passer. In case you need a little more proof, check this out:
Yeah, he’s ‘not accurate’ alright. Nope, not at all.
Oh, and one last thing - Newton played with an injured throwing shoulder for the final four games of last season. If healthy, it’s to be assumed his performance would have been better. Put another way, an injured Cam Newton would have been comparable to 2-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning with an adequate supporting cast. Why isn’t that tidbit included in analysis of Newton’s supposed lack of accuracy? If the Andrew Lucks of the football world get a pass for being injured, why doesn’t Cam Newton?
tl;dr - Because a picture is worth a thousand words:
* - Regular season only.