Cam Newton wasn't just great in 2011 -- he made everyone around him much, much better. (Getty)
The "stats vs. wins" argument in sports is generally fodder for less than compelling discussion -- everybody seems to take a side, and everybody starts throwing food. The latest example started when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith got his back up regarding the perception that he's more a game manager than a star player. After six seasons full of struggles, Smith was finally featured in the right kind of system, and he helped his team to a 13-3 record and a near-trip to the Super Bowl last season.
"I really don't care," Smith said, when asked if he would ever throw for more yards than Drew Brees. The conversation then turned to Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton. "I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what, you're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half. Yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That's great. You're not winning, though."
Well, let's set aside the fact that Smith taking ownership of the 49ers' season is a bit like Michael Anthony getting equal royalties for songs Eddie Van Halen wrote ... but it is worth mentioning. According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, Smith was the 13th most effective quarterback in the league last year; two spots ahead of Newton. But he was managed and manipulated in a sense, told to not screw up, and rarely tilted the field because he didn't have to. The 49ers had an amazing defense and a great running game, and as long as Smith was an important cog, things rolled pretty well. As long as he didn't outstrip his limitations and didn't go too far down the wrong side of the curve (in two of the 49ers' three regular-season losses last season, Smith threw no touchdowns), Smith could rock and roll with a lot of padding around him.
The point that Smith appears to be missing when he takes veiled shots at Newton, perhaps as an exasperated response to his own limitations, is that Smith didn't start "winning" as a quarterback until his seventh NFL season. In a way, it sets the table for the impact of Newton's amazing rookie season when Smith specifies Newton as the cross-example -- the guy who allegedly throws a lot because he's always playing from behind.
But here's the problem ... Newton wasn't throwing more from behind. In 2011, Newton threw 256 passes when the Carolina Panthers were playing from behind, completing 150, for 2,040 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. When the Panthers were ahead or tied, Newton threw 261 passes, competing 160, for 2,011 yards, 13 touchdowns, and seven picks. So, he was more efficient when ahead, but any quarterback will be -- especially as the game winds down in a win, defenses are preparing to stop the run, and there will generally be more opportunities downfield.
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The most interesting part of the Newton vs. Smith debate happens when we turn our attention to Smith's rookie year, and we focus on rookie quarterback vs. rookie quarterback. Both men were selected first overall in drafts (Smith in 2005; Newton in 2011) by teams with previously horrible offenses. Both men were drafted by teams with first-year head coaches who made their bones as defensive coordinators (Mike Nolan and Ron Rivera), and both men had to transcend the fact that their targets were less than spectacular. In addition, both men had to adapt to the NFL from college spread/option offenses that magnified their strengths and minimized their weaknesses. Urban Meyer's Utah offense and Gene Chizik's read-and-go down at Auburn may not have looked entirely similar on the field, but the adjustments were similarly steep.
And this is where we would like to offer Alex Smith a nice warm cup of Shut The [Bleep] Up. In 2005, Smith took the reins of a team that had gone 2-14 the previous year and finished near the bottom in offensive efficiency -- 29th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted DVOA rankings. In 2005, with Smith making his NFL transition, the 49ers actually regressed severely -- they finished dead last in DVOA, and by a fairly huge margin. The 2005 49ers weren't just bad; they were horribly, epically bad. Smith had Brandon Lloyd, Arnaz Battle, and Johnnie Morton as his primary targets, and none of those men finished higher than 72nd in FO's cumulative or per-play numbers. More damning was the fact that Lloyd -- Smith's primary target -- regressed in his own numbers compared to the year before. Lloyd ranked 56th in DVOA among qualifying receivers in 2004 and 74th in 2005. He ranked 52nd in DYAR (FO's cumulative efficiency stat) in 2004, and 75th in 2005.
Even worse, and as pathetic as San Francisco's offense was in 2004, Smith couldn't even post an improvement over the quarterback he replaced -- and that's a very damning indictment of a first-overall pick. Tim Rattay, the 49ers' primary quarterback in 2004, finished 30th in both DVOA and DYAR as a fifth-year knockaround guy and former seventh-round draft pick. In 2005, Smith finished 46th in each stat (dead last in the NFL by enormous margins in both cases) and had one of the most brutal rookie seasons any quarterback has ever suffered through -- he threw just one touchdown and 11 interceptions. Not only did Smith not lead his team, he frequently looked like a deer in the headlights. The 49ers went from 2-14 to 4-12 in that 2005 season, but it's primarily because they couldn't get any worse.
So, the short version -- When the 49ers selected Alex Smith first overall in 2005, they immediately became worse on offense for their trouble, and things didn't turn around for more than half a decade. Smith wasn't a catalyst for that turnaround, either -- he was a key cog at best and an innocent bystander at worst.
On to Newton. Like the 2005 49ers, the 2010 Panthers fielded one of the worst offenses you'd ever not want to see. In fact, they were even worse than the 2005 49ers -- dead last in the league in Offensive DVOA, 31st in passing, and dead last in rushing. The Panthers went from 2-14 to 6-10 in 2011, but unlike the two extra cursory wins the Niners enjoyed, the four extra wins in Carolina meant a great deal from the quarterback position, and the reason is replacement value.
Let's start with the Panthers' quarterback situation before and after Newton showed up. In 2010, Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen alternated snaps and offensive suckitude, and it showed up in the numbers -- Clausen finished last in DYAR and third-worst in DVOA, while Moore finished 43rd (fourth-worst) in both categories. In 2011, Newton raised that quarterback efficiency rating to 15th in DYAR, and 16th in DVOA. He threw for more than twice as many touchdowns (21 to 8) and almost twice as many yards (4,051 to 2,415) as Moore and Clausen combined. Those numbers are sufficiently impressive, but despite Smith's passive-aggressive claim that Newton was just a stat-padder in futile endeavors, Newton's presence on the field meant far more than his own numbers would intimate.
While Brandon Lloyd fell through the basement as Smith's primary target in 2005, Steve Smith enjoyed a major professional resurgence with Newton as his wingman. In 2010, Smith finished 85th in DYAR and 83rd in DVOA with Clausen and Moore throwing ducks all over the place -- by far, Smith's worst rankings throughout his estimable career. He went up to 15th in DYAR and 23rd in DVOA in 2011; his best season since 2008. I have talked to both men, and the symbiosis is impressive -- Newton credits Smith with helping him get the hang of the NFL, and Smith believes in Newton like he's never believed in another quarterback. And while Smith's presence gives Newton a bit of a headstart in the #1 receiver area, it wasn't as if the Panthers were teeming with great targets. After Smith, the list included Legedu Naanee, Brandon LaFell, and a series of running backs and tight ends with relatively average receiving value.
However, the biggest difference the Panthers enjoyed with Newton was in the running game. In 2011, the Panthers rose up from 32nd in Rushing DVOA to first in the NFL. Credit must be given to backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and the Panthers' offensive line, but the one thing Newton gave the Panthers that Smith could never give the 49ers is the kind of run-option nightmare reminiscent of the Michael Vick who ran the "DVD" offense with Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett for the 2004-2006 Atlanta Falcons. Those Falcons led the league in rushing each of those three seasons.
Put simply, and in every possible way, Cam Newton elevated his team like few rookie quarterbacks ever have. That Alex Smith is attempting to minimize Newton's statistical exploits, and that others might minimize them in the name of the "winning is all that matters" mandate ... well, a more important point is missed. The Panthers have a nearly limitless version of the game's most important position, while the 49ers spent their offseason trying to get Peyton Manning to replace their version.
Is there any doubt in anybody's mind that the 49ers would swap Smith for Newton in a hot minute? And how many first-round draft picks would the 49ers have to throw in to make that deal remotely square? More than the two first overall picks spent on Smith and Newton, and the value in the Panthers' favor reveals the truth: Can Newton isn't just more valuable than Alex Smith; he's in a completely different stratosphere when it comes to player value.
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