Why Cam Newton’s rushing ability makes him true MVP candidate

Cam Newton may not be the best QB in the league, by his ability with this legs greatly ups his value to the Panthers.

| 12 months ago
(Chris Keane/AP Images for Panini)

(Chris Keane/AP Images for Panini)

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:

Newton

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:

Cam Power

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:

2015-12-09_15-49-21

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.

Cam Empty

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • FisherStache

    Allllllll Aboard!!!!!!

  • Bill Herring

    The grading method for QB’s begs for change. How can percent completion solely define a QB’s performance…how about wins for instance? Or in the case of Cam how about running? But as you describe above, it is more than running…it is also the threat of running. Thanks for explaining Cam’s contribution so well.

    • RC Carlton

      Teams win…not Qbs

      • Craig Hipp

        Ok, then I guess the mvp goes to the Panthers?

        • ATL ALL WEEK

          No, it goes to Palmer, Gronk, Brady, or Juilo Jones not Cam or Scram Newton.

    • Jonathan Seidman

      what you are saying about completion % is 100% untrue…not sure where you got that idea.

      • Jeremiah

        5 yard dinks and dunks with YAC boost completion percentage. How about the fact that trailing teams often get the prevent defense that allows underneath completions without much contest? It’s important, but isn’t the holy grail that many make it out to be. That’s why.

    • JudoPrince

      Bill, the problem with advanced QB performance metrics is that it relies so heavily on completion %. It’s a major reason you’ll find a QB like Teddy Bridgewater with a higher QBR than Cam, despite having thrown only 9 TD’s all season. The reason why Cam doesn’t have a completion% hovering around the mid 60’s is because of the personnel and design of the offense.

      The Panthers don’t rely on the short, easy completion routes from an elite slot receiver who could work his way open 4-7 yards downfield consistently. They also don’t have the explosive, pass catching RB who can create easy mismatch opportunities against linebackers and safeties. Having either a slot receiver or RB who gets open in the middle of the field or through wheel routes make for simple completions. The Panthers passing attack is based primarily on route progressions that hit deep in the seams or corners, or down the sidelines. These type of routes are inherently more difficult to complete, requiring exceptional timing by the receiver and trust from the QB. Because Cam connects often on these chunk plays, the Panthers are proving this scheme can be more effective then the West Coast style used by so many other teams. After all they are undefeated.

      • David Swanner

        Oddly enough, Cam does better on the down the field deep ball, than on the short slants and west coast offense style dink passes.

  • Names Unimportant

    The question about Cam Newton is: is his running sustainable? He does seem to be smart about avoid bad hits as a ball carrier, but he’s always just a single pile-up from a separated shoulder or wrecked knee. Let’s face it, the reason teams don’t like to expose their QBs on running plays is the injury risk and how does big Cam make it past 30 if he continues to make power runs between the tackles? And when he does go down with an injury, his value becomes even more apparent since there is no chance his backup could do what he does. It doesn’t matter how good that Panthers defense is, that team becomes the 2014, late-season Cardinals without him. Ron Rivera and the offensive coaches need to put that man in the pocket and keep him nice and safe before some OG rolls into his knees and ends his season/damages his career.

    • John Cho

      I mean, I feel like being in the pocket can be just as dangerous as a QB…look at Big Ben, or brady’s injury a few years back. Cam can slide or run out of bounds much easier then when in the pocket, and can decide to not get hit. In the pocket thats not an option.

      • Names Unimportant

        Agreed, the pocket isn’t 100% safe (Carson Palmer agrees), but when you design run plays for your QB, you expose him to an additional 10-15 hits/tackles per game—in addition to, say, 40 dropbacks. To me, the risk is cumulative and adding around 200 contact plays per season to your QB’s workload is a big risk. Assuming he gets pressured 30% of dropbacks, you are roughly doubling the hits he takes. If Cam is so valuable, part of his value comes from the running skills, but that’s also the drawback to his play: he needs to run to be valuable. He’s one damaged knee/shoulder/ankle/elbow/shoulder from wrecking the Panthers’ season. I watched every snap John Elway took as a pro and by the time he was Cam’s age, he was running out of bounds and sliding consistently, understanding the risk/reward, and most of his designed runs were the relatively safe bootlegs to the boundary. I think the Panthers need to move to that kind of practice as soon as they can—which also means Cam needs to improve his ability to throw within the confines of a pocket attack: with accuracy and timing. Personally, I enjoy watching his rugged play, but it’s sorta like watching Wes Welker go over the middle: I’m terrified he’s gonna get seriously hurt.

    • Jonathan Seidman

      that’s true of EVERY player.

    • gomer_rs

      I agree with this regarding the QB powers described, but as a Seahawk fan and seeing RW develop and watching a lot of Kaepernick, I will say that these QBs take a lot bigger and uglier hits in the pocket than they do optioning a player from the shotgun or running a naked boot.

      • Kornel Hartung

        Can’t agree more. The pocket behind a semidecent line is more of a danger. Just take a look at all the qb injuries in the last couple of years. There were quite a few, and I can’t recall any happened during a design rush.

    • David Swanner

      Yes, that’s true. But Cam’s got a lot smarter about running out of bounds or doing a hook slide. Sacrificing a few yards in gains to save a lot of wear and tear on his body.

  • crosseyedlemon

    First PFF staffers were beating the drum calling for Palmer to be considered MVP and now they are beating the drum for Newton. Looks like they are dead set against supporting the guy who actually will win the award though.

    • Jonathan Seidman

      it’s going to be Cam or Palmer unless they get hurt…book it.

    • codered5

      And who would that be. Palmer has the best numbers and the second best record so who is it that “will” win the the award?

  • Jonathan Seidman

    i know they’ll get Benjamin back next year, but imagine if they added a legit WR to that group?

    they’d score 40/game….heck, they are almost doing that now without Benjamin and another WR threat.

    ps
    if only Ginn didn’t have stonehands, he’d have 15 TDs this year.

  • a57se

    So Cam Newton is awesome sauce because he can run…

  • JudoPrince

    “At this point, it’s not news to anybody to suggest that Newton has become a very talented, if flawed, passer”

    Way to go out on a limb there. Which QB isn’t flawed as a passer? Have you seen Brady’s deep throws down field? They look more akin to flying ducks.

  • James Winslow

    In my opinion he’s the MVP because heis 12-0 he seems to have his best games when his team is behind.