How Panthers' play-calling limited Cam Newton's effectiveness
Cam Newton’s MVP season came crashing to a halt in the Super Bowl when he ran into the defensive juggernaut that is the Denver Broncos.
We knew this Denver defense was good, but stumbles against Pittsburgh and injuries late in the season may have lulled us all into a false sense of sense of security, believing them to be merely good, and not great.
Newton was pressured on 35.5 percent of his dropbacks during the regular season, but 46.9 percent in the Super Bowl. In total, the Denver defense notched 35 pressures, and Carolina’s offensive line—which had the seventh-best pass-blocking efficiency during the regular season, allowing 145 total pressures in sixteen games—was responsible for 26 of them.
Newton began to feel phantom pressure even when the heat wasn’t coming, and when it was, he completed just 31.3 percent of his passes.
We saw some of the Cam Newton of old—a good, but not MVP-level quarterback—come back to the surface, with routine throws failing to find their mark. He didn’t play badly in the Super Bowl, but he also didn’t play as well as we have come to expect this season.
Late in the first quarter, Newton missed on the throw that has been his biggest issue during his career—and one that should be completed every time. Against cover-3, the Panthers had Ted Ginn open in the gap between corner and safety, but Newton simply airmailed the ball too high. He was sacked the very next play and forced to punt, already trailing by 10 in the game. This season, Newton has been hitting this pass with much better regularity, but when the pressure was applied in the Super Bowl, he regressed.
That’s not to say that Newton didn’t do good things in this game, and we saw some flashes of his ability both with his legs and arm. Early in the third quarter, Newton found Ginn again after working through his progression. This time, he hit him in stride on a deep-dig route, beating the safety with the throw that ultimately gained 45 yards.
Newton’s numbers also suffered from four drops over the game—something that he’s had to deal with all season long, but becomes amplified in games as close as this one.
The biggest asset to Newton’s play is his work in the run game. In this game, he carried the ball six times for 45 yards (7.5 per carry), but the Panthers ran surprisingly little of this, and barely broke out the option plays that are so difficult to defend, and which did pose the Denver defense with some questions. Newton instead became the focus of the passing attack, dropping back to pass 37 times, despite the game being close enough to continue running the regular offense right up until the killer blows late in the fourth quarter.
Carolina’s play-calling essentially hamstrung its own greatest weapon on offense, transforming an MVP player into just another quarterback, and doing so when facing the best pass-rush and coverage unit they have had to deal with all season. Cam Newton threatened to be effective when carrying the football, but was under so much pressure when passing that he could never provide the same threat through the air.
The Broncos’ defense got after Cam Newton and effectively restricted what he could do as a passing quarterback—but don’t understate the role the Panthers played in reducing Newton’s potential impact, too.
In the end, his game will be remembered for what he didn’t do far more than what he did. Newton didn’t carry the ball nearly as much as we expected him to. He didn’t complete the routine passes he needed to. He didn’t dive on a loose ball because it looked like it would be a pretty unpleasant environment to put himself in, and ultimately, didn’t have the effect on the game that he should have.