How Panthers’ play-calling limited Cam Newton’s effectiveness

With few option plays and designed QB runs, the Carolina Panthers effectively hamstrung their greatest offensive weapon in Super Bowl 50.

| 8 months ago
(AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

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.

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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.

| Senior Analyst

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

  • KWS13

    Near the end of the game, Super Bowl, defensive struggle, multiple turnovers on both sides, not many opportunities for big plays, deep in your own territory, league MVP, biggest and strongest QB this side of a healthy Roethlisberger, surrounded by doubters all year long, with a chance to make a game saving play on a loose ball, and in Newton’s head he thinks “Ooh yeesh not gonna get into that, ima just back away.”

    • JudoPrince

      Not diving for a ball that would have lead to a punt, even if he would have gotten the ball anyway? There were notable plays in this game that were of great impact. This was not one of them.

      • crashby89

        That was huge actually. 6 point game and if you punt you flip the field. Neither offense was doing anything so you likely get the ball back. Not making an effort automatically puts the Broncos in position to make it a 2 possession game.

      • Von Miller’s Life Coach

        A punt to an anemic offense pinning them on their side of the 50 versus a sack/fumble giving them field position within five yards of the goal line…… really man?!?! Panthers are still in the game there with a fumble recovery..

        • JudoPrince

          Even had the Broncos gone 3 and out inside their 50, they would have pinned the ball deep again for the Panthers, leaving them with no timeouts, very little time and an entire field to cover. They weren’t doing that against the Broncos D. Just wasn’t their night. Putting all your hopes on Newton not attempting to recover a fumble is pretty baseless.

          • http://www.twitter.com/michaelprocton Michael Procton

            They probably weren’t scoring, but they CERTAINLY weren’t scoring twice.

      • WICKED

        This was the play that signified Cam had given up all hope of winning. There was still time on the clock to get the ball back and one more chance to win it. Fact is Cam was mentally broken at that point and just wanted to go home.

      • geo2209

        So just give up a backbreaking TD in the SB instead of punting and letting the D stop Peyton again? You’re an idiot.

      • http://www.twitter.com/michaelprocton Michael Procton

        A punt would have likely led to another possession in a one-score game; Denver didn’t do anything on offense.

    • SpringsGal

      Not diving for the fumbled ball under those circumstances is baffling. Cam has tried hard to build a persona of “Superman” and that he is indestructible. And if he needed to “fly” to recover that fumble, he should have. Instead he shrunk on the biggest stage – in the biggest possible moment. His true personality came out yesterday during the game and after in postgame interviews. He is a selfish player and makes it all about himself. That is tolerated by the team/coach/players/locker room as long as the Panthers are winning. His act gets stale if the Panthers lose a few games. Next year, Panthers will play a tougher schedule and I see them losing a lot of games. And Cam will be pouting with a towel on the sideline.

      • JudoPrince

        Or he might win MVP again and take the Super Bowl with a better supporting cast. You might not like his Cam or his post game interview, but a 17-2 season with 45/10 TD to INT ratio determined Cam being crowned the best in the league. Not diving for a fumble.

        • geo2209

          And he played in the worst division with a cupcake schedule. How did he do the year before? Cracked ribs and a playoff loss. Cam is overrated as football player and mature adult.

          • JudoPrince

            Ahhh….the old ‘cupcake’ schedule argument as to why he was so great. Well, the MVP voters didn’t feel that way; nor did PFF who has him ranked as the #1 QB with playoffs included.

          • mormonrock124

            He’s ranked as the 4th best QB in the NFL for his 2015 season according to the chart listed on the home screen. Big Ben is listed as #1.

            Also Cam had 15 TD passes and 9 INT thru 9 weeks which are good/ok numbers. He went on a tear after week 9 where he had 20 TD’s and 1 int, which is great no matter who you are playing, but 15 of those TD passes came against the Saints, Redskins, and Giants who offered the 31st, 24th, and 32nd ranked defenses in football. He did pad his stats against some really bad defenses and played exceptional football for 7 weeks out of a 16 week season.

          • nmmatt

            They finished first last year in their division too, even though they had a .500 season. So how do you figure their schedule will get any harder? Are the other teams in their division going to improve? Are they matched up with tougher divisions in the AFC and head to head in the NFC?
            Schedule difficulty is completely based on where you finish in your division and which divisions you match up against – which are rotational. So I just don’t understand why everyone is assuming that they’ll play a tougher schedule next year.

        • SpringsGal

          If he puts up those type of numbers again next year, he deserves to be the MVP again. But personally I don’t see that happening. Teams adapt during the off-season. Broncos exposed Cam and the Panthers. All teams are going to watch that tape and try to get into Cam’s head early and often. So far, Cam has demonstrated that when things are going well that he wants to be the center of attention. When he faces adversity, he starts pouting and wants to move away. That will take a toll on team chemistry.

          As far as his post game interviews, that is his choice. If Rivera, his team and the Panther fans are okay with the pouting/sore loser attitude, then that is okay. What is unforgivable is not jumping in the pile for the ball because he did not want to risk injury. That is cowardly and you lose respect with your peers.

        • http://www.twitter.com/michaelprocton Michael Procton

          A better supporting cast? Not likely. They’ve got likely departing starters to replace at DE (X2, so Ealy does not solve that problem) and CB (Tillman’s gone even if Norman comes back), and the defense (and their stellar turnover rate) was clearly the driving force behind this team.

          • JudoPrince

            Norman will be back. Tillman is a replacement level talent at age 35. Tillman’s presence was felt this year, but reserve CB McClain was just as effective. All of the major key pieces will be back for the Panthers. The difference is not only will they have all of their picks in the coming draft to make additions and they will finally have cap space to explore in free agency. Jarret Allen is very replaceable and Charles Johnson was not nearly as impactful as previous seasons. A free agent pass rusher can be found who can produce better than both of them. Ealy is a young, growing talent who can build off his dominant SB performance.

            Let’s not forget to mention the return of true number one receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Keep in mind other young players will only get better such as Funchess, Bene Benwickere, and Cory Brown who has improved over his first two seasons. Shaq Thompson will be in year two; he started to resemble Thomas Davis late in the season.

            There really isn’t any doubt that the Panthers will be an improved squad, at least on paper, which is all you can go by for now.

  • Ben M

    PFF: “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.”

    Cam was clearly hyper in this outing. Many times against the Denver rush he should have just eaten the ball. Denver’s points came off Cam’s mistakes. Without those mistakes, Game could easily have been 10-9 Carolina.

    His fatal flaw is the believe he can still pull out the win on his own back. He literally handed Denver the ball with that belief. Carolina has won low-scoring games before, but they’ve been overconfident with wins over Seattle and Arizona.

    • Alex Clark

      Cam’s problem was that the pressure of the Big Game + the pressure of the Broncos got inside his head. That is why Manning played better that Cam in this game. Manning did not try to carry Denver on his shoulders. He tried to protect the ball, and take time off the clock so the defense could get a breather. That is all that was required of him. Cam tried to be a star and it cost him.

      • Ben M

        True. Young quarterback. With no turnovers, the game would have been 6-3. But Carolina failed to protect the ball. Simple as that.

  • WICKED

    The game plan was to stuff the run and force Cam to win the game with his arm. It worked perfectly like I thought it would.

    • Johnny U.

      carolina still rushed for over 100 yards

      • geo2209

        Wow! 100 yards combined between how many backs and the QB? Cam was the only one getting more than 2ypc.

  • Mark Erickson

    Typically Carolina has success with Cam scrambling on a broken play for yardage, yesterday it seemed like Denver did a great job keeping him contained in the pocket and Miller’s speed really neutralized his ability to escape. Those plays that typically ended up being positive with Cam’s legs were resulting in big losses as Miller found his man all night…

  • Frank Yi

    I get that Carolina did stop running the ball with Cam, but here’s a thought. Late in the game (I can’t remember specifically when, as I haven’t gone back to rewatch the game), but the camera focused on Cam on the sideline during a timeout, and he looked tired. He had been battered and hit a lot, and while he was effective as a runner, my initial thought was “Cam looks worn and tired.”

    As we don’t associate things with Cam that we often do with most other running quarterbacks (Vick, Wilson, RGIII come to mind off the bat) in that Cam is much bigger than those other guys, he is still subject to fatigue. I’m not saying he is out of shape in anyway, but Cam wasn’t getting hit like this in the regular season, and he wasn’t running for his life like this in the regular season. One of the reasons running QBs tend to suffer is that they expend energy running that can lead to wear, since Cam doesn’t get the luxury of coming off the field for a breather while the offense has the ball the way a running back does.

    I don’t know what goes on in the mind of Shula, or how Cam felt in the moment, but they may have been reluctant to expose their franchise QB, no matter how big and tank-like he is built, to taking more hits; the runs he did make, he did take some big hits

    • crashby89

      The defense got in his head but there is no shame in that it happens to every QB at some point and this defense was doing it all year. Go back and look at what they did to Rodgers and you will see a guy with defeated body language as well, it’s what great defenses do. Manning and the Broncos even experienced that 2 years ago.

    • geo2209

      Yup, he wasn’t properly conditioned for that game. Too many selfies and dancing instead of endurance and strength conditioning.

  • MosesZD

    1. Newton is a half-field QB so he requires a simple passing offense. Newton has played all season in a simple passing offense. There was nothing new about what happened last night.

    2. I think the real story was boring old field position which never makes it to the highlight reels.

    During the season, the Panthers had the second best field position to start drives in the NFL which hid the fact that they were really only average (in drive execution) on offense. Last night their average starting position was the 26 and their over-rated offense was simply nowhere near the task of moving the ball consistently against the Broncos.

    That’s the same thing that happened against Atlanta. They started all but two drives on their 20 or less. The two that started past the 20 were at the 35 & 36. And they just couldn’t march the length of the field.

    • Johnny U.

      Cam Newton is better than all the young white qbs

      • geo2209

        Yes, better at being a coward afraid to jump on a fumble out of fear. If this was “The Wiz”, he would be the cowardly lion.

        • Ryan

          Oh yeah, because the qb who runs like that and will chase down turnovers is a “coward”

          • geo2209

            Cam is the biggest coward in the NFL and exposed on national TV. He’s one injury away from becoming RG3.

    • Charlie Casserly

      Really? One bad game and all these pro-white supremacists out there commenting where as their own white geniuses like Mannings, Rodgers, Andrew Sucks, Cutlers, Staffords have been laying eggs after eggs! Outside of Tom Brady, Ben Rothlisberger & Peyton Manning in 2013, there is not a single white QB who have played better than Cam Newton in recent times

      • mormonrock124

        Pro White supremacists…lets be grown up here. Cam talks about the color of his skin no one else does. He played more than one bad game this year, but that really isn’t the point. He had an overall great season, but that pretty much goes at the window when you play your worse game in your biggest game.

        Right now Cam has a 3-3 postseason record with 8 TD passes – 7 INT – 2 rushing TD’s and 5 Fumbles. That isn’t good at all. Take away a top flight D and Cam isn’t going to be a on big stage again without significantly improved play no matter what color he is.

        • Charlie Casserly

          Tell me, who has won without great defense? Just last week ‘Gollum from Lord of the rings’ won his precious second ring due to the dominance of defense, great help from referees and probably match fixing without doing anything! NFL is 1960s south which has ensured that black QBs don’t win SB! The only reason Seahawks beat Broncos in 2014 is because Seahawks completely shocked the NFL world by dominating! If it was a close game. referees would have handed it to Broncos!

          • mormonrock124

            Ah the classic the refs lost the game…good comeback bro.

        • JT

          Manning’s numbers in the postseason are shit….especially in his postseason runs…what’s your point? You act like some shitty QB can just walk into the Panthers offense and run it nearly as well as Cam. Before the season people were wondering if their offense would be average….

          • mormonrock124

            Manning has 2 SB ring and 4 appeareances and prior to this year never had a top 10 defense let alone a top 5 defense.

      • Gary Espiritu

        There is a white guy up there in Green Bay who puts up some pretty good numbers, idk he must be Chinese or something

      • JudoPrince

        Setting the race nonsense aside, Cam right now is perhaps the best in the business. Let’s be honest: Most thought it would be Andrew Luck assuming that role. Well that turned out dead wrong. Brady has had a great career but he will be 39 next year. Drew Breese is still very good but he’s getting up there in age on a team that isn’t a contender. So that leaves Big Ben, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson as the only other two players who could claim the crown as best QB in football. Big Ben and Rodgers are still in their primes but Newton is just 26. He has three full seasons left before he turns 30!

        You will be hard pressed to find a more dominant season by a QB than Cam Newton had. There are only a strict handful you can compare to his level of dominance in 2015. You can criticize Newton for not playing up to par against Denver’s dominant defense if you want, but there is no denying that losing is only going to make Newton more obsessed with winning. That alone doesn’t bode well for the rest of the league….not to mention the fact that the Panthers have every key player returning and for the first time in years have the cap room to make serious additions in free agency. This is the most dangerous team in football come 2016 and possibly beyond.

        • Jake

          Remember before the San Francisco-Baltimore super bowl everyone was talking about Colin kapernick like he was the future of the NFL….how did that work out for San Fran. Cam will be the next kapernick in a long line of mobile qbs that got figured out by NFL defenses

          • JudoPrince

            ‘Figured out’? Cam has continuously improved every year and will now be entering year 6. Prior to this year he had already established himself a player who can absolutely take over a game almost by himself. At 26, he has an MVP title under his belt and made it to the Super Bowl. If the league had figured him out the first four years, the Panthers would not have awarded him one of the highest contracts in NFL, before this season. Cam has developed into an elite level downfield passer according to every advanced metric, despite an underwhelming receiving core. The reigning MVP is on the rise….all respect to Kap, but this guy’s simply on a different path. Did Russell Wilson also get ‘figured out’?

          • Charlie Casserly

            Well, it is a white man’s wet dream! Not going to happen! Every one has figured out Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler, Matt Stafford! Yet they get to play in the league for 4, 8, 6 years! But you say that ppl have figured out Kapernick in 3 years! Even Fitzpatrick, Sam Bradford are given more opportunities than RG3 and Kaepernick! Keep dreaming white boy because next 3-4 drafts there will be more QB who look like Kaepernick, Cam Newton!

      • Anonymous

        Define “recent times” Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees also have won SB’s in the past 8-8 years.

        There’s also another Manning that has another 2 SB’s. As a matter of fact, outside of Russell Wilson, the list you just named plus the 3 more I provided have combined to win 9 of the past 10 SB’s.

        • Charlie Casserly

          Another Manning has 2 SB’s! He won because of dominant defense. He is n interception machine. And this year his brother Gollum won his ‘precious ring’ by doing nothing! Dominant defense, NFL referees and may be the league handed it to him for a great send off!

          SuperBowl is not a yard stick for good quarterbacking! Dan marino, Jim Kelly never won superbowls! But that does not stop you guys saying they are great!

    • Charlie Casserly

      Still way better than Andrew Suck!

    • Charlie Casserly

      He is definitely no Russell Wilson! Even though he has all the talent and ability, he needs to learn patience from Russell Wilson

    • JudoPrince

      “Newton is a half-field QB so he requires a simple passing offense”

      Thanks for the keen insight on the league MVP, who donned one of the best seasons in NFL history. lol

      • Steve O’Dell

        Donned?

      • http://www.twitter.com/michaelprocton Michael Procton

        A well-designed offense and an elite defense sure makes you look better than you are.

        • JudoPrince

          Of course it does….same case for every QB in the history of the league as well as every QB in the future.

    • Alex Clark

      I agree that field position was a huge factor in the Bronco’s win. It made the Panthers very frustrated which lead to penalties that in turn hurt their field position. All Manning had to do was not turn the ball over and get into field goal range. Special teams and their impact are so underrated and mostly ignored in the analysis of the game these days.

    • edromeo

      Lol, I bet you were waiting a long time to pull out this old dusty (and btw false) narrative.

  • Devin Jordan

    Isn’t the defense on the Ted Ginn incompletion Cover 1, not Cover 3?

  • crosseyedlemon

    I agree that the Panthers had an ill conceived game plan. No matter how good your QB is you can’t put him in a position where he has to carry the offense by himself. For years the Dolphins tried to do that with Dan Marino and how many Super Bowl rings does he have?

  • justinhis

    Panthers game plan seemed to be throw deep on every play. They gave up on the run quick allowing Denver to rush him every play. They didn’t give him any extra protection. It was a bad game plan with no adjustment.

    • Charlie Casserly

      Well, we have seen this kind of weird play calling throughout the playoffs against Denver Broncos by Steelers. Patriots & Panthers! May be this game was fixed so that Peyton got his sendoff trophy! Similar questionable play calling in 3 of the last 4 super bowl! After all, according to the reports, NFL has 98 billion in illegal gambling!

  • Tim Lynch

    I personally loved the Broncos game plan. Force Cam to throw the ball against a ball hawking defense. He failed.

    • Charlie Casserly

      I personally liked the way some panthers players were paid off not to show up by gambling industry!

    • JudoPrince

      If you read the breakdown of the game, he actually did fairly well throwing the ball downfield against one of the best postseason defenses in NFL history. There were four dropped balls, including a drop that lead to an interception and basically zero pass protection. Despite that, the Panthers offense outpaced Denver’s offense by a mile. A break here or there (missed FG, allowing that def holding penalty to stand as opposed to picking it up, the failure to reverse the Cotchery catch which led to Denver’s only other TD) and the Panthers could have won. But that’s football.

      • Tim Lynch

        No he didn’t. He had two drops and he got lucky on a few jump balls. That’s 4 passes … he had TWENTY other INCOMPLETIONS. His passes sailed, his passes were inaccurate. He looked lost in the pocket, worried about the pressure more than anything.

        Cam Newton had one of the historically poor Super Bowl performances. He was trumped by Peyton who was even worse.

        The grade is absurd. And PFF needs to really consider how they grade QBs, cause those are the grades that just seem to be head scratchers.

        • mormonrock124

          Agreed. The write up for the game was more than misleading and providing very little insight to how he actual played better than the stat line suggests. Typically when you have 3 turnovers that create 17 pts and you only lead your team to 10 pts than really is no way to paint that picture in a positive light.

  • Charlie Casserly

    Well, we have seen this kind of weird play calling throughout the playoffs against Denver Broncos by Steelers. Patriots & Panthers! May be this game was fixed so that Peyton got his sendoff trophy! Similar questionable play calling in 3 of the last 4 super bowl! After all, according to the reports, NFL has 98 billion in illegal gambling! No one will investigate into these things because there is enough money to pay off any one

  • Charlie Casserly

    I am trying to guess how many Carolina Panthers players swiss bank accounts went up by few millions yesterday!

  • http://www.twitter.com/michaelprocton Michael Procton

    Don’t underestimate the effect Jonathan Stewart’s foot injury had on Newton and the run game. Neither Mike Tolbert (who ended up playing more snaps than Stewart did) nor Fozzy Whittaker are exactly the same kind of threats in the option game plays the Panthers run.

  • Kar Nels

    Watching Panthers in SB reminded so much of watching my Vikes offense all season. Crappy Oline yielding to massive blitz, not enough from receivers and QB to overcome constant pressure.

    Even Brady and Rodgers had some really bad games when their Olines and receivers weren’t as top notch as recent past seasons.

    NFL is all about pressure and either have rock-solid line that can stop it or having QB and high-end tight-ends/receivers, receiving running backs that can thwart the blitz.