Counting playoff games, last Sunday’s game was the 115th career start for Cam Newton – and, with the division title there for the taking – it was (statistically) his worst game. The passer rating system is not perfect, but it does a reasonably good job of translating performance into an easily understood number. It balances the value of high completion percentage (even though many of the completed passes may be very short) with the value of longer completions (although these may be offset by incompletions and interceptions). It rewards touchdown passes and penalizes interceptions. Whether the measurement is for a game or a season, if your score is over 100 your performance is usually superior. Over 90 is also an excellent day (or year). At 80, you’ve average to good. A score in the 70s is unremarkable, and lower than that is disappointing.
Until last Sunday, Newton’s poorest single game passer rating had come in a game against New Orleans in 2014. After completing only 10 of his 28 passes for just 151 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, Cam walked off the field that day with a passer rating of 39.4. Last Sunday, he left with an even more dismal 31.5 rating – courtesy of a 14 of 34 performance that saw him throw for 180 yards, his one touchdown pass offset by three interceptions.
A look inside the numbers is even more alarming. At the end of the half, Newton led Carolina on its only touchdown drive of the day. He completed all 7 passes during that drive for 66 yards and – of course – his only touchdown pass. During the entire rest of the game, Cam struggled to complete just 7 of his other 27 passes (25.9%) for 114 yards (just 4.22 yards per attempted pass – although a healthy 16.29 average per completion). These yards came, however, with no touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
His passer rating for the entire rest of the game (other than the touchdown drive) was an amazing 5.1.
Beyond the statistics, the viewers of the game were also left with the impression that this was at least one of the worst games – if not the worst – of his career. The tale of the tape points to all of the things he has struggled with for most of his career.
Receiver’s Getting Open
A fair portion of the blame can be laid at the feet of his receivers. Atlanta’s defensive approach in this game was telling. They blitzed rarely and seldom played man coverages against Newton’s receivers. They stayed mostly in basic zone coverages and challenged the Panther receivers to get open and challenged Newton to read the coverage and throw the ball into very small windows. The coverage wasn’t flawless at all as Atlanta is still better at man coverage than zone. But several of Newton’s misses were throw-aways because there were no open receivers. Newton’s rough night also included a drop of a screen pass by Christian McCaffrey.
Deciding Too Quickly
But most of Cam’s issues last Sunday were his own. This includes his inclination to decide too early where he is going with the ball. I am convinced that at least half of the time, he makes his mind up in the pre-snap who is going to be open and who will get the ball. Of his 19 true incompletions (one was a spike to stop the clock) I counted six in which he made the wrong decision. Let me mention two.
With 4:15 left in the first quarter, Newton noticed the Falcons were in a rare man coverage. Wide left, he had Devin Funchess with Robert Alford aligned over him. From the snap of the ball, Alford ran Funchess’ route with him step for step. But Newton never looked anywhere else and threw the ball to Funchess anyway. Alford reached back and deflected the pass. Had Brian Poole been a step closer, Cam would have endured a 4-interception game.
Now there is 10:42 left in the game. The Panthers trail 16-7, and have third-and-6 on the Falcon 24-yard line. Atlanta is in man again (Newton is most susceptible to making his mind up before the snap when he sees man coverage). This time he has Greg Olsen wide right, with Poole in coverage.
Close to the left side of the formation was fourth receiver Kaelin Clay (playing for his second team this season and the third in his three-year career). After the snap, Clay broke open over the deep middle – deep enough to have given Carolina a first-and-goal. But Newton never saw him – he never even looked in his direction. Cam watched Olsen all the way off the line of scrimmage as he ran his go route up the sideline, with Poole in coverage step for step.
Anticipating that Olsen would break his route to the sidelines, Newton fired the ball where he thought Greg would be. But Olsen kept motoring up the sidelines and the ball sailed harmlessly out of bounds.
Carolina kicked the field goal that would be their last points of the night.
But the thing that everyone who watched this game remembers are the high throws. Newton’s mechanics have never been consistent, and he is given to frequent inaccuracy. In this game he threw a bevy of high passes. I counted 5 of them – throws that were completely over the receiver’s head or so high that he couldn’t pull the ball in. I also counted 3 other inaccurate throws to open receivers. Fully 40% of his incomplete passes were simply the result of poor throws to open receivers. Again a couple of examples.
There is 6:37 left in the game, Panthers trailing 19-10. They are first-and-10 on their own 25 yards line. Olsen (lined up to the right) and Brenton Bersin (lined up to the left) ran shallow crosses (again against man coverage). As they crossed each other’s path, their respective defenders got tangled up with the linebacker who was spying Newton. Bersin broke into clear, running wide open toward the sideline as fast as he could – but not fast enough to catch Newton’s throw that led him much too far.
Two minutes later, Carolina is back in almost that same situation. It is first-and-10 on their own 25. They still trail 19-10. Now there is 4:20 left.
This time the Falcons are in zone, and Cam throws over the middle for Olsen, defended by linebacker Deion Jones. But the throw is high. Olsen leaps for it, but can only get the tips of his fingers on it – deflecting it perfectly in the air for Keanu Neal to make the interception.
The Falcons, who themselves were only 1-for-5 in the red zone and scored just one touchdown on the game, kicked the field goal that provided the final points in their 22-10 victory (gamebook).
A few weeks ago – I think it was after their Week 14 victory over Minnesota – Cam Newton informed the writers in the post-game press conference that he had broken all of the “rules” of quarterback play (like throwing back across his body). He finished the statement by smugly noting that “sometimes you have to overcome coaching.”
The sobering fact is that even after games like this, I’m sure Newton still feels that way.