Quarterbacks with Question Marks

On the previous Sunday evening, the Kansas City Chiefs had roughed up the Houston Texan’s defense for 450 yards.  They pushed them around on the ground to the tune of 127 yards (107 by super rookie Kareem Hunt) and another 323 through the air as oft-maligned quarterback Alex Smith completed 29 of 37 passes for 3 touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.2.  The 42-34 victory left them at 5-0 with a seemingly unsolvable offense.

As they took the field last Sunday afternoon, they were bludgeoning opponents on the ground, racking up 156.2 yards per game and an unheard of 5.7 yards per carry.  When they wanted to throw, Smith was producing a 125.8 passing rating (for the season) – a performance that included completing 76.6% of his passes with no interceptions.  For five games, the Kansas City offense had its way with the rest of the NFL, scoring 32.8 points per game.

And then they ran into a buzz saw.  For the first 30 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated Kansas City the way that top 25 NCAA teams dominate Division II teams in their home-coming games.  As they walked into the locker room at halftime, the Steelers had controlled the ball for 21 minutes and 41 seconds, outgained KC 232 yards to 6 (no that is not a misprint) that included a 116 to minus-2 differential in rushing yards (that is not a misprint either).  They held a 16-1 edge in first downs.

While the Chiefs would play better in the second half, they ended the game with just 251 total yards and a 19-13 loss (gamebook).  The heretofore unstoppable Alex Smith finished with an 88.6 passer rating.

What happened?  The short answer is Le’Veon Bell, but the full answer is more complex than that.

After losing commitment to the run in their previous week’s loss, the Steelers wielded Bell and their offensive line like a cudgel.  Bell finished with 179 yards on 32 carries, and the Steelers team finished with 194 yards on 37 carries.  Although they didn’t score on all of them, Pittsburgh had three different first-half drives that all lasted at least 6:19 – two of them lasting 12 plays.  To their credit, the Kansas City defense never did completely implode.  But neither could they get themselves off the field.

Here is what always happens when one team’s offense pushes the other team’s defense around in the first half – and I’ve seen this hundreds of times.  This is, in fact, what had happened to Pittsburgh the previous week.

The only chance the pushed around team has is to have early success running the ball.  After the Steelers chewed up the first 6:19 of the game, Kansas City gained 4 yards on its first two runs.  Then, after the Steelers ran off another 6:25 of the clock, the Chiefs came out throwing and never got back to the running game.

I point out that there was no need to abandon the running game.  At the point that they gave up on the run, they were only trailing by six with three full quarters to go.  But NFL teams don’t seem to have the will to counter-punch with the running game unless they see early returns.  Even though the quarterback has been sitting cold on the sidelines for 12:44 of the first 15:05 of the game, all NFL coaches seem to feel the irresistible urge to get back into the game by throwing the football.

Kareem Hunt entered the game with 609 rushing yards on 97 carries through his first 5 NFL games.  He finished Sunday carrying the ball only 9 times the whole game, even though KC never trailed by more than 9 points.

How did the Steelers – who came into the game allowing 136.6 rushing yards a game and 5.1 yards a carry – muffle the powerful Kansas City running game?  They stopped the first three runs and let Kansas City turn off their own running game.

Alex Smith

With the decision made to go to the air, the fate of the Chiefs rested on the arm and head of Alex Smith.  In a game eerily similar to the playoff game they lost to Pittsburgh last year, Alex threw the ball pretty well.  Last January he was 20 of 34.  Last Sunday he was 19 of 34.  He lost 18-16 last January.  He lost 19-13 on Sunday.

Let me be clear about this.  It is unfair to pin this loss on Alex Smith.  Pittsburgh dominated this game on both sides of the line of scrimmage.  But, because the KC defense managed to hold the team in the game, Alex – as he did in the playoff game – had late chances to win the game.  In particular, there were two throws – two plays that were there to be made – that Smith just didn’t make.

There was 2:31 left on the game clock.  The Chiefs had second-and-10 on the Steeler 15.  Alex did get pressure.  Mike Hilton came free on a blitz.  But standing all alone in the left corner of the end zone was Demarcus Robinson.  Smith overthrew him.  That drive ended in the field goal that made it a 19-13 game.

Then, with 1:11 left, Smith and the Chiefs had the ball again, second-and-10 from the Steeler 40.  Again, it was Robinson breaking clean over the middle.  And, again, Smith’s throw was too high.

As Kansas City has surrounded Alex with more and more offensive playmakers, we are finally beginning to see the quarterback that Smith can be.  More than just a game-manger, Alex Smith is a craftsman with plus mobility.  He makes excellent decisions, he makes them quickly, and he delivers the ball with great accuracy.  Most of the time, anyway.  There is no mental or physical reason why Alex couldn’t lead his team to a championship.

Except that he hasn’t.

With Smith, it’s all about the playoffs now.  However great his regular season is, everyone will be waiting for him to play in January the way he plays in September and October.

(Footnote: Kansas City played last night and suffered a stunning 31-30 loss to Oakland.  Even so, Alex was back to the Alex Smith of the first five games.  He finished his evening 25 of 36 for 342 yards and 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating for the evening was a stellar 127.3 and he still hasn’t thrown an interception this season.  We’ll have more to say about this game later, I suspect.)

Cam Newton

Last Thursday, Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers fell to Philadelphia, 28-23 (gamebook).  Again, pinning the loss on Newton would be unfair.  Like Kansas City, Carolina’s running game was also inhaled by Philadelphia’s dominating defensive front.  For the game, every Carolina ball-carrier not named Cam Newton was held to 9 yards on 14 carries – an almost mind-numbing stat.

Still, Newton’s final line was disappointing.  Throwing 52 times, Cam completed 28 for just 239 yards (Carolina had only one play of twenty yards in the game).  Newton offset his one touchdown pass with three interceptions – a 48.5 passer rating.  More than just the numbers, though, this game brought to the surface all the questions that I (and others) have about Newton.

Mechanics

Always a point of discussion with Newton is his inconsistent mechanics.  More than any quarterback I watch, Cam is content to throw flat footed.  There were probably ten Newton throws last Thursday thrown without Cam planting his feet and getting his body behind the throw.  When you see his tosses sail high or fall well short, usually you will see Cam throwing flat footed.

Superman in the Backfield?

Everyone knows that Cam has a thing for Superman.  Many of his self-congratulatory antics connect him with his boyhood idol.  But sometimes in the back field he acts like he thinks he really is Superman.  None of the other mobile quarterbacks will stay rooted in the pocket as it begins to close in on him.  They will spin out and move the pocket away from the pressure.  Even the less mobile quarterbacks will at lease retreat a few steps from the chaos directly in front of them.  Failing all else, they will cover up the ball and take the sack.

One of Newton’s curious quirks is that he will stand planted on his spot and try to throw the ball over the top of linemen that are almost standing on his toes.  There were at least a half-dozen throws that Newton made in that game where he tried to throw over a lineman that was standing in his kitchen.

His first interception came on such a throw.  About half-way through the second period, Eagle defensive lineman Fletcher Cox got under Panther guard Trai Turner and pushed him right back into Newton’s face.  Watching the replay, I actually think that Turner was stepping on Newton’s foot when Cam threw the ball.  Certainly, he was close enough that Cox could reach over Turner and still hit Newton’s arm as Cam made the pass – which fluttered duck-like until Eagle cornerback Rasul Douglas gathered it in.

It is almost as though Newton expects all those linemen to bounce off his chest like so many bullets.  But even that won’t put a crease in the brow of Cam’s offensive coordinator as deep as his other recurring quirk.

Not Going Through His Progressions

Much was made of the Panthers losing star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to a possible concussion – and understandably so.  Kuechly is a force.

Less was made of the fact that Philadelphia also lost their starting middle linebacker.  Jordan Hicks had hurt his ankle at some point of the first half and didn’t play in the second half – and with his exit came a complete change in the Eagle defensive scheme.

Throughout the first half, the Eagles rushed with four, played tight man coverage and left Hicks to spy Newton.  With Hicks out of the mix, the Eagles became almost a 100% zone team in the second half – a defense they don’t run nearly as well.  Combined with the tiring of the pass rushers, Cam Newton had myriad opportunities to exploit holes in the Eagle zone.

Except that he never looked for those opportunities.  Perhaps rattled by the early game pressure, Newton spent most of the second half deciding – I think off his pre-snap read – where he was going to go with the ball.  One of the strangest habits he fell into was never looking to his right.  Of his 32 second half passes, 21 were thrown to the left – and on most of those he never even looked at what was going on to his right.  I will give you my two favorite examples:

There was 13:51 left in the third quarter.  The Panthers trailed 18-10, and had the ball first-and-10 at their own 35.  Newton executed a play-fake to Jonathan Stewart that completely fooled the entire left side of the Eagle defense.  Everyone over there came crashing into the Panther backfield, including safety Malcolm Jenkins (who would have made the tackle in the backfield) and cornerback Jalen Mills.

Lined up in the slot, Devin Funchess made a slight fake like he was going to block, and then popped clear in behind the Eagle defenders that raced heedlessly past him.  But Newton never looked.  He was already throwing the ball to Kelvin Benjamin on a short curl into a soft spot of the zone – a perfect throw, by the way, that Benjamin dropped.

But my favorite play occurred during Carolina’s first drive of the fourth quarter.

There is 13:30 left on the game clock, and the Eagles hold a 28-16 lead.  The Panthers are first-and-10 on their own 42.  After Benjamin and Russell Shepard switched sides, Cam had Shepard wide to his left, with tight-end Ed Dickson in the slot to that side.  His two most explosive receivers – Funchess and Benjamin – were now to his right.  Newton, of course, never looked to his right, as he dropped a nicely thrown 3-yard pass to Shepard who found a soft-spot underneath the zone coverage.

Even more compelling than the routes Benjamin and Funchess were running, was the defensive reaction to the play.  On the offensive left side, the Eagles were playing an “active” zone.  As Dickson ran his deep bow-out, the secondary closed on him.  As Shepard curled under the zone, it flowed to meet him.

On the offensive right side, the defense was, technically, playing zone.  But mostly they just stood and watched.  Cornerback Patrick Robinson, who had the short zone, jogged back about three steps and watched.  Mills had the deep zone, so he dutifully dropped to his required depth – but did little else.

Benjamin raced all alone to the right flat.  Robinson was – technically – within 15 yards of him, but didn’t even look at him, much less follow him.  A quick toss to the right flat would probably have been good for 12-15 yards.  Meanwhile, Funchess ran untouched and un-regarded right up the seam.  Mills watched him streak by without even a wave.  But Newton had already made up his mind, and settled for the 3-yard pass to Shepard.

For quite a while I puzzled over Cam’s compulsion for the left side, until it occurred to me that looking and throwing to the left is the easiest play for a right-handed quarterback to make.

Analyzing Newton

Here’s my take on Cam:

Newton is an enormously gifted football player.  Arguably he is the most gifted quarterback anywhere in football.  That can be a double-edged sword.  I don’t believe that Newton has ever struggled at any level of football – including the NFL where he was setting records in his very first game; and where two seasons ago he almost led this Carolina team to an undefeated season.  Since anything athletic has always come easily to Cam, it’s only natural that he wants football to keep coming easily.

Being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a great ride, and nobody enjoys the ride any more than Newton.  Whether he’s preening for the cameras after a first-down, or organizing team photos on the sideline while the game is still going on, or whether he’s directing teammates’ touchdown celebrations, the fun part of the NFL means an awful lot to Newton.  And – since his talents are such that he usually completes his passes even if he is standing flatfooted, or throwing with a lineman in his face, or even if he hasn’t scanned the field – it can be a little hard to impress upon him the importance of these techniques.  They become skills that less gifted quarterbacks have to develop to compete.

Newton will continue to enjoy significant success in the NFL, just on his athleticism alone.  But Cam won’t be a great quarterback until he embraces the discipline that greatness requires.

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