Will Cam Newton Be Worth the Money for the Panthers?

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The NFL has seen the rise of another talented, young QB who successfully brought his team to the playoffs the last two years and set himself up for a lucrative new deal.  Cam Newton was drafted in 2011 and led his team to a 13-19 record his first two seasons, with each season representing more wins than the prior season.  His 2013 season was by far the team’s best, as he recorded a 12-4 record but lost in their first game of the playoffs.  Last season, Cam led the Panthers to one of the few playoff births for a 7-8-1 team.

Tuesday, Cam Newton signed a 5 year, $103.8M contract with $60M guaranteed. In the first 3 years, he will earn $67.6M. In terms of average, it puts him essentially even with Matt Ryan of the Falcons, and slightly above Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Tannehill.

It’s pointless to argue whether Newton did or did not earn his new contract.  The fact of the matter is, what were the Panthers going to do?  It’s almost impossible to walk away from the #1 overall draft pick after his rookie deal when he’s been good enough to start 100% of the games where he wasn’t injured (he started all 16 games his first 3 yrs and 14 last year), and has led his team to the postseason each of the last two years.  So the Panthers were going to re-sign him.  While you can debate a few million here or there, when you look at veteran deals for QBs who might be considered a “franchise” QB and who signed in the last 3 years, the range is $16M avg/yr for Dalton to $22M avg/yr for Rodgers, with 12 QBs in between.

When Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler and Alex Smith are making $17M+ with 40%+ guaranteed, it’s obvious Cam Newton will be re-signed for huge money.

But the Panthers didn’t re-sign Newton to lead 7-9 playoff teams, nor did they re-sign him to miss the playoffs entirely. They want playoff wins and they want Cam to take the team further than he has to this point in his career.  But for Cam to do that, he’s going to need to take a BIG step.  And that’s what we’re going to analyze.

To help demonstrate why Cam Newton MUST improve in a big way to give the Panthers any hope after signing this deal, let’s examine three players who signed their second contract just two years ago (before the 2013 season) after proving their worth during their rookie deals:

– Drafted in 2008, Joe Flacco played out his rookie deal and became a free agent in 2013, where he commanded big money after winning the Super Bowl.  He signed a 6 year, $121M deal and hit the cap for $15M last year and will hit it again this year before his cap hit doubles to $28+M (and the Ravens likely will restructure after 2015).

– Drafted in 2008, Matt Ryan was signed prior to the last year of his rookie deal (in 2013) and hit the cap last year for almost $18M and will hit it for just under $20M this year.

– Drafted in 2009, Matthew Stafford was poised to hit the cap for $20.8M in the 5th year of his rookie deal when the Lions signed him to new deal starting in 2013, and he’s hit the cap for between $16-$18M the last two seasons.

These players had a lot in common with Cam, in that they became the face of the franchise and were beloved in their respective cities.  Cam soon will have something else in common with them: a lack of defense.

Before paying Flacco, Ryan and Stafford, in 2012, the Ravens, Falcons and Lions were in the top 10 of salary cap attributed to their defense. They could afford to spend defensively because their QBs were on rookie deals. But when you re-sign that QB for as much as they signed him for, that money has to be offset somewhere. Often it means a weaker defense. In just 3 years, the Ravens, Falcons and Lions went from spending top 10 dollars on their defenses to occupying spots 26, 27 and 32 for salary cap dollars attributed to defense.

Defenses inherently get weaker when more money gets spent offensively.  Sure, there are times when well-drafted talent can over-perform expectations and tremendous coaching and scheme can offset bad talent.  But for the most part, NFL talent is quickly assessed and then compensated for, particularly after a rookie deal ends.  Which means if you want a talented defense, it costs money.

Many of the league’s best quarterbacks know that truth all too well.  As we’ll discuss in a minute, the number of games Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan have had to win when their opponent puts up 21+ points speaks for itself.  These quarterbacks have to do many things that they might not have to do if their defense was a top unit in the NFL.  Things such as:

– Outscore their opponent in a shootout

– Come from behind when their opponent has a lead

– Win games despite trailing when entering the 4th quarter

They are well paid, franchise quarterbacks.  But they are paid that large salary because the team assumes they can and will win games in these precarious situations.

The excuse from Panthers fans as to why Newton’s stats aren’t better is that he has a great defense, so he doesn’t need to put up prolific stats.  Point noted.  So let’s see how the Panthers fared in games when the defense put Cam in those undesirable positions, either by playing poorly vs a bad opponent, or playing well but facing a great opponent.

And allow me to preface this with the fact that counting team wins and losses as “quarterback wins” is typically flawed, because it puts of the burden on the quarterback, when football is a team game.  But to illustrate what Cam needs to improve on in the next few seasons, this exercise is still educational and the results are more than interesting.

When Allowing 21+ Points

Most teams lose when this happens.  Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning are the only exceptions to the rule.  That said, most of the decent teams still win 30% of their games even when allowing 21+.  Teams with top dollar QBs need them to find a way, teams like the Cowboys, Falcons, Lions, Saints and Chargers, who all rank in the top 10 in this stat.

But glance at the far left of the table below and you’ll find the teams with the fewest wins.  And right there at the top of the list are the Panthers who have won just 4 of 31 games with Cam Newton when allowing 21+ points.  Only the Jaguars have been worse.

When Needing To Come From Behind

Obviously the mark of any decent quarterback is their ability to bring a team back from a deficit.  A team could trail for any number of reasons.  Some could be the quarterback’s own fault, so he must rescue his team from himself.  But in many cases, his defense (particularly a bad defense) gives up scores and the quarterback must match and then overcompensate to pull out the victory.  For some teams that doesn’t happen as often, which is why teams like the Seahawks and 49ers don’t have many games in this sample, because their defense is strong enough to keep things relatively close.  When looking at the quarterback’s ability to come from behind, it made sense to remove games where the defense scored to help win the game.

Here we see the Panthers with a 3-25 record when an opponent leads by 7+ points at any point in a game.  No team has fewer wins, but the Jaguars win percentage is worse.  Once again, near the top of this list are several franchise quarterbacks with mediocre to poor defenses, like Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning.

When these players receive $100M contracts, it’s inevitable the defense won’t be superior to what it was when they were “earning” those deals before hitting paydirt.  It’s up to the quarterback to overcome the slightly worse defensive performance.  This is clearly an area Cam Newton must improve upon.

When Trailing After 3 Quarters

Most of the time, teams will lose games when trailing after 3 quarters.  But this is the NFL.  It’s hard to make the playoffs, and every single win counts. Sometimes a 9-7 team misses the playoffs because they didn’t win one more game to improve to 10-6.

So in the first table below, focus not as much on the losses as you do the wins.  No team has a winning record when trailing after 3 quarters.  But winning 5 of 22 games, like the Ravens and Steelers each did the last 4 seasons, is just over 1 extra win per year, and clearly is the difference in making the playoffs in ultra-competitive divisions.  Consider it “stealing” a win, and every team needs a few of those.

But not every team gets them.  Particularly not Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers.  Perhaps Panthers fans sensed this without even realizing the nature of the stat, but the Panthers are the only team in the NFL since 2011 to never have won a single game when trailing by over 3 points entering the 4th quarter.

I decided to expand the stat, because 0-20 is pretty bad.  So I expanded to any game where a team is not leading by 3+ points entering the 4th quarter, meaning a tie game, a game they were up by 1-2, or a game where they were losing by any amount.  [Interestingly, in games under Cam Newton, when it’s a 1 point game entering the 4th quarter (tied or lead/trail by 1) the Panthers are 1-5.]

Cam Newton’s Statistics

When you look at multiple, key splits such as “Allowing 21+” or “Trailing after 3 Quarters”, you hope your team is not ranked near the bottom of the league, let alone dead last.  But over and over, Cam Newton’s Panthers have sat at the bottom through his entire tenure in Carolina.

How has he specifically performed?  Well, for one, when starting from average field position (inside a team’s 30) and trailing by 1-7 points in the 2nd half, Cam Newton has led his offense to score just 8 TDs on 66 drives.  That’s 12% — well below the NFL average.  Only 4 teams are worse (NYJ, JAC, STL, KC).  Late in the game, when his team NEEDED a score, Cam was not able to drive them for touchdowns consistently enough. [Note that Brees, Peyton, Flacco, Romo, Rodgers and Brady scored 25% TDs or more, and ranked as the top 6 offenses in this situation.]

But what about when Cam Newton doesn’t have to drive the length of the field?  What about when he has the football in the red zone?  What does his performance look like then?

Quite interesting, actually.  A QB who is as much a threat to run as Newton is inside the red zone should see easier coverage when passing.  Newton has excelled when running but has been very poor when passing.

When trailing in the 2nd half, Cam Newton has put up the best numbers of any player when running the football in the red zone.  His 9 TDs (since 2011) is tied for the most in the league.  He is used like a RB in many of these situations, so it’s more appropriate to compare his rushing numbers to RBs than QBs, and he’s the best RB in the red zone from a total TD and a yds/att perspective.  Compared to other QBs who tuck and run, he’s not the best, but many of these QBs are simply tucking and running on busted coverages, as opposed to carrying the football on designed runs.

It’s clear based on total volume and consistency you would rather have Newton running the ball than most of the QBs above him, perhaps with two exceptions.  The most comparable QBs would be Luck and Wilson.  Both of them average more yds/attempt but score TDs at a slightly lower rate (3.7 att/TD vs Newton’s 3.4 att/TD).

Because Newton is so good on the ground, his passing numbers theoretically should benefit.  But they don’t.  Unlike Wilson and Luck, who complete just over 50% of their pass attempts (which is just over the NFL average), Newton completes only 35% of his red zone passes when trailing in the 2nd half.  And as a result, his passer rating is one of the worst in the NFL.  Only a handful of now ex-starting QBs were worse:  Chad Henne, Brandon Weeden, Blaine Gabbert and Matt Schaub.  Newton’s passer rating is worse than Jake Locker, Geno Smith, Robert Griffin, Michael Vick and Josh Freeman.

Newton’s TD:Int ratio is solid at 12:3, but 35% completions and 6 sacks means more FGs than a team wants when inside the red zone.  And when a team is trailing in the second half, efficiency and converting in the red zone are crucial.

The Difference Between A Player Earning His Deal And The Deal Being Worth It To His Team

Based on the going rate for franchise quarterbacks and the talent/skill set Cam Newton possesses, he’s earned his new contract.  But he won’t be worth it for the Panthers unless he can improve as his defense regresses.  

– He must learn how to outscore opponents when they are producing vs his defense.

– He must learn how to overcome deficits and win, rather than front-running.

– He must learn how to come back late in the game and steal victories.

– He must perform better when his team needs him the most: in the 2nd half when trailing, whether it’s inside the red zone or back in his own territory.

Cam Newton will find himself in more precarious situations than he has faced up to this point in his career.  Ask Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford.  Ask any of the best franchise QBs, like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.  Not having a stellar defense is not an excuse for any of them.  And when Cam Newton’s defense inevitably steps down a notch, Cam must pick up the slack.

As the above stats and records reflect, he has not performed well in these situations to date.  He has demonstrated improvement over the last 4 years but still has to make some significant strides.  So while Cam earned his new deal, he will need to improve tremendously in these situations to make the deal worth it for the Panthers.  Because he will find himself in them more often then he would like after inking his contract.

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.