Higher Education: Cam Newton, and the politics of winning

On Sunday afternoon against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton became the first player in NFL history to throw for over 400 yards in each of his first two NFL starts. He was eclipsed in this endeavor by two things — first, the fact that Tom Brady became the seventh quarterback to post back-to-back 400-yard passing games in NFL history, and second, the fact that the Panthers lost both of the games in which Newton put up those huge numbers.

Never mind that Newton now has the top two games in rookie passing yardage in league history no matter the week (422 his first week against the Arizona Cardinals, 432 against the Pack), never mind that there were several dropped passes inhibiting Newton's efforts, never mind that had Cards linebacker Paris Lenon not made a huge last-second tackle on halfback Mike Goodson at the end of the Carolina-Arizona game, that contest would have been tied. Nope, based on won-loss record alone, many people are prepared to dismiss Newton's first two NFL games as mere statistical noise.

That's all well and good, but when you look at the seven quarterbacks who have put those back-to-back performances together, only Brady and Dan Fouts in 1984 "won" both of their games. Dan Marino in 1984 and Matt Cassel in 2008 went 1-1, and three quarterbacks — Newton, Phil Simms in 1985, and Billy Volek in 2004 — went 0-2. The concept of quarterback wins is a sketchy one at best, but attaching losses to stats that seem to indicate the need to catch up in the first place (unless you're Bill Belichick, you're probably not going to air it out up by 35 in the fourth quarter) seems specious, to say the least.

Looking back at the 0-2 quarterbacks ... well, as much as he kills me as an announcer, I can't say that attaching a loss to Phil Simms' 432-yard performance in the New York Giants' 30-29 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 6, 1985 is altogether fair. Simms threw two picks in the game, but he also threw three touchdown passes, and the G-men were up, 26-14, at one point in the third quarter. Why doesn't the Giants' defense get at least half of that "loss"?

And in the 513-yard followup … well, what the heck else was Simms supposed to do? He threw 62 passes in that game, completing 40, and it wasn't as if he had a Murderer's Row of receivers. Beyond Mark Bavaro, who caught 12 passes for 176 yards in that game, the names Lionel Manuel, Phil McConkey and Tony Galbreath are not going to inspire fear in any defense. Simms threw two more picks against one touchdown, so there's no doubt that he's responsible, but I'll ask the same question of this effort that I'd ask of Newton's game against the Packers — when you have almost no running game (15 carries for 27 yards), don't you think the defense is going to key on your quarterback just a bit? The only thing the Giants' run game did that day was to vulture two touchdowns from Simms' passing total.

Let's move to Volek, who put up his two 400-yard games for the 2004 Tennessee Titans in relief of Steve McNair. The 426-yard opener came in a 49-38 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 13, and Volek threw four touchdowns and not a single pick in the game. Clearly, the loss was his fault, and should be attached to his name, as opposed to a Tennessee defense that gave up six touchdowns -- the seventh coming on a fumble return. Chiefs running back Larry Johnson had rushing TDs of 46 and 41 yards, and receiver Eddie Kennison burned the Titans' secondary for two touchdowns of his own.

Volek's second straight big game saw him pass for 492 yards on 40 completions out of 60 attempts in a 45-30 loss to the Oakland Raiders. He threw four touchdown passes and one interception. So, to summarize: Volek was the "losing" quarterback in a two-game stretch where he threw eight touchdown passes, just one pick and 918 yards. That yardage total is third among all the quarterbacks listed here, with Brady and Simms outdoing him.  

Does that make any sense at all? How on earth did Volek "lose" those games?

And on to Newton. There's no question that he helped his team lose the Packers with two picks to cornerback Charles Woodson and another to safety Morgan Burnett. But the Panthers also had just 71 yards rushing on 21 attempts against a defense that was playing the Panthers to run through the first quarter, when Newton threw for 151 yards, ran for 18 more and amounted to all but 2 yards of the Panthers' offensive output. Once the Pack adjusted, and Newton showed a few mechanical failures, he was in about the trouble that everyone expected him to be against Green Bay.

However, Newton kept his team in both of those games, and when you watch the tape against the Packers, it was the little things he did that impressed. The way he rolled out right against slide protection left on the first play and hit the open man on a play his rollout made possible. The way he set one of the NFL's best front sevens on edge with his option fakes. The way he put up 40 more rushing yards than anyone else on his team, and scored Carolina's only rushing touchdown for the second straight week. The way he forced deep coverage with his exceptional arm … and all this with a Panthers team that featured the league's most incompetent offense in 2010.  

Want proof? In 2010, there were six different games in which Carolina's starting quarterback failed to throw for at least 151 yards. That's right, Newton's predecessors frequently found it impossible to put up what he did in the first quarter of his second NFL game.

If it's too late to put the kibosh on quarterback wins — and I suspect the ship has sailed on curbing the most ridiculous statistic in sports — can we at least appreciate what it is Cam Newton's doing for a while before we render it irrelevant because he couldn't lift the entire planet on his shoulders?

Sometimes, Atlas shrugs, especially when he's still a rookie.

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