Why Cam Newton's rushing ability makes him true MVP candidate
Cam Newton had the best game of his season against New Orleans in a comeback win that kept the team undefeated—and his MVP candidacy growing ever stronger.
It was the highest single-game grade we have given any quarterback this season—which is not to say that it was perfect, but it included some mesmerizing throws and huge plays from the QB.
At this point, it’s not news to anybody to suggest that Newton has become a very talented, if flawed, passer. Some of the throws he has made this season have been spectacular. This one, for example:
The fact Ted Ginn did his best Clifford Franklin impression on the play only highlights the millstone around his neck that Newton is working with when it comes to carrying this offense on his shoulders, enhancing his MVP case.
But instead of focusing on Newton, the passer, I want to look at what makes him such a unique weapon in the NFL—his impact on, and role within, the Panthers’ running attack.
With most athletic quarterbacks, there are a few ways teams can use them in the offense to add a running dimension that makes them more difficult to defend against; but with Newton, the number of ways he can influence it is so much greater because of the unique attributes he brings to the table.
The Panthers use the same tricks everybody else does when it comes to mobile quarterbacks—quarterback draw plays and basic bootlegs—but they have a far more varied arsenal than any other team, because Newton is such a bigger running threat.
Why is that?
He’s certainly athletic, but no more than several other quarterbacks in the NFL. What separates Newton is his sheer size. At 6-feet-5-inches, he is listed at 245 pounds, and looks significantly larger than that. When he takes off running, he dwarfs linebackers and defensive backs when he makes it to the second level. When he fights out of tackles around the line of scrimmage, he is too strong for defensive ends and edge rushers, and looks every bit as large as they are.
Whatever his actual weight, he has a significant size advantage over almost every quarterback in the league, and those that can match him there don’t have anything similar to his athleticism.
This size gives him a body the Panthers are comfortable exposing to contact in a way other teams aren’t with their quarterbacks. Russell Wilson or Marcus Mariota are both dangerous runners with supreme athleticism, but neither team wants them taking too many hits carrying the ball. Washington is still reeling from the damage that strategy had on RGIII, after he was fantastic in his rookie season, thanks in large part to his running threat and what that did for the offense. The Panthers just don’t have that worry with Newton, because he is so big. They trust him to be smart and avoid hits when it makes sense to, but also to put his body on the line and deliver hits to gain yardage when that’s the way to go. Size does not always equal durability, but Newton, at least, seems far more likely to hold up to these hits at his size than a quarterback 30 pounds lighter would.
Take this play as a good example:
The Panthers run QB-power with Newton. This is a play no other team in the NFL would run with their quarterback regularly, if at all, but the Panthers do it often with Newton. This isn’t him acting as a decoy or a second option to a run play that isolates a defender—this is power football sending your quarterback into the teeth of a defense and relying on his strength and the blocking to get it done.
If you have a quarterback who becomes a threat to do this, suddenly everything changes.
Teams are used to defending the running game by essentially discounting the quarterback. His job is to hand the ball off and then get out of there, leaving blockers and the ball carrier against the defenders up in the box. If he becomes a threat to carry the ball, as well, suddenly the numbers changes, and you need an extra defender to account for that. Start moving another defender in to counter that, and suddenly you’re exposed in coverage. Newton forces you to defend all 11 players and make choices in terms of deployment on defense that other quarterbacks don’t.
He also runs the same option plays that have become something of a niche in today’s NFL:
This works on the same theory as we just talked about—trying to change the numbers game when it comes to the run, but the way it usually swings the balance back to the offense is by leaving one defender unblocked, or “optioned,” and showing two distinct runs to defend.
Here, there are actually three potential runs (with the pitch guy included), but the basic idea is that the DE (Cameron Jordan, No. 94) has to decide whether to play the inside zone play and chase after the running back, or maintain outside contain and attack the quarterback. Newton reads the line of attack from Jordan and makes him wrong, whatever he does. The 49ers used this heavily in the early days of Colin Kaepernick, the Seahawks use it with Russell Wilson plenty, and even the Bengals use it with Andy Dalton. Almost every run play the Eagles have shows an option look to the defense to try and freeze that defender and improve the situation inside, even if they virtually never keep it with the quarterback anymore.
One other way the Panthers can mess with defenses (because of Newton’s unique threat to run) is running from empty sets. Again, this is something that other teams can do, but in a slightly different way. When an offense splits everybody out wide and lines up with an empty backfield, it’s a clear sign to the defense that they are passing the ball. Logically, with no running back to take a hand-off, there is no running play coming. Teams sometimes use this assumption to fake a pass and run the QB-draw that we talked about earlier, but this relies on the defense essentially being fooled enough to open up space for the QB to pick up good yardage before getting hit. It’s effective, but the Panthers can do something else because their quarterback is different.
In the red zone, the Panthers motion Mike Tolbert out of the backfield and are now showing an empty set. The defense is spread pretty thin, and even if you include the safety on the goal line, they have just six guys inside the tackle box against five offensive linemen and Newton, with Greg Olsen tight enough to the formation to block on the play. Instead of running a draw, the Panthers run block on the line, and Newton carries the ball to the right. As it turns out, Greg Olsen makes such a poor block that the play gets killed in the backfield, but if he had executed a routine down block, then Newton would have been all alone on the way to the end zone with only the FS in the middle of the field having any chance of saving the touchdown.
There are quarterbacks in the NFL who help their running game by being efficient or elite passers. There are those that can help it by being a threat to break the pocket and run, or by the threat they pose as part of the read-option looks they show—but there are none that form such an integral part of the run game as Newton.
This is why Newton has a legitimate MVP case, even if his numbers won’t ever match those of Tom Brady when it comes to passing. Newton isn’t just executing a successful passing attack with a group of bit-part or cast-off receivers, but he is making his own life easier in the passing game with the unique threat he poses as a runner. He’s acting as his own Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch—an elite running weapon that teams need to devote extra attention to, which opens up the passing game.
The Panthers’ leading rusher this season is Jonathan Stewart, and he is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. Newton is averaging 4.4, and has seven touchdowns to Stewart’s five. Even adding in Mike Tolbert—and all of the other players the team has had carry the ball this season—Newton has more scores than his running backs when carrying the football.
Cam Newton may be the league’s biggest matchup problem, most unique weapon, and pose more questions to a defense than any other player in the NFL. While Tom Brady or Carson Palmer may be the best quarterbacks this season, it’s tough to argue with the idea that Newton is the most valuable, because of how completely he determines the success of this offense in both the passing and running game.