Cam Newton is One of the Five Best Rookie Quarterbacks of the Modern Era

By Jason Lisk
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Cam Newton threw for an improbable 422 yards on opening day. Then he followed that up with another 432 yards against the defending champs yesterday. Any lazy comparison to JaMarcus Russell seems laughable at this point (Russell started one game as a rookie and threw fewer passes than Newton already).

This is not to say that he has been perfect or mistake free, because he hasn’t. And I don’t just focus on the yards, because those can be dictated by game situation and total number of attempts. However, he is averaging over 10 yards a pass attempt, and completing over 60% of his passes, and he’s escaping plays with his feet and scoring touchdowns, and has basically been the entire offense, and not protected behind a running game.

As I see it, it is a pretty safe bet that Cam Newton will go on to have one of the five best rookie seasons of the modern era, and the only question, depending on how much he progresses over the next 14 games, is where it will rank among those. I’ll define both “rookie” and “modern era” real quick. I consider the modern era to be 1960, when the AFL created competition and greater number of teams, and the effect was also to open up more jobs that allowed an influx of African-American players. As for rookie, I’m talking straight out of college and into the pros, as the league will recognize a player who appears on a NFL roster as a rookie. I’m not counting guys like Moon or Garcia, who played in the CFL, or Jim Kelly, who played in the USFL, as rookies, and I’m also not counting guys who were on practice squads but did not accrue service time until out of college for more than a year.

When we look at Newton through two games, he is 52 of 83, for 854 passing yards, 3 TD’s, 4 INT’s, 8 sacks for a loss of 47 yards, and 18 rushes for 71 yards and 2 TD’s (no fumbles on those 26 carries/sacks). Interceptions are bad, and are typical of a young passer, but are offset by the number of big plays to still make him an above average passer. The official sack rate of 8.8% is high, but when you consider that running plays can be sacks avoided, and that virtually all of his runs are scrambles on pass plays, his sack rate looks much better.

Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANYA) assesses a 45 yard penalty for interceptions, and also takes off sack yards. So far this year, even with the negative plays, his ANYA is 7.22, well above average. His game against Green Bay showed both the up and down nature of the young quarterback’s play, as he led long drives, and also went through a stretch where the Panthers ran 7 total plays and had 3 turnovers, including 2 interceptions, as the Packers took the lead in the second half.

When I look at true out of college rookies since 1960, four other seasons stand out above the rest, and Newton should finish somewhere among this group:

  • Greg Cook, Cincinnati Bengals, 1969. Cook was a star in the making until a shoulder injury during his rookie year basically ended his career, prompting a young Bill Walsh to change his offense to what became the “West Coast” offense because other quarterbacks couldn’t make the plays Cook could. Cook averaged 9.4 yards per attempt as a rookie, and his ANYA was 6.5.
  • Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins, 1983. Arguably the most dynamic and NFL ready passer to ever enter the league, Marino, like Newton, was controversial, but unlike Newton he slipped in the draft. He didn’t start the first few games, but quickly took over for David Woodley and put up a 7.5 yards per attempt and 20-6 TD/INT ratio, for an ANYA of 7.4.
  • Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004. Big Ben inherited a team that had been to the playoffs multiple times before slipping to 6 wins the year before, had an excellent defense, and a running game. Still, he elevated it by making big plays and the Steelers went 15-1. He averaged 8.9 YPA and his ANYA was 6.9 (mostly do to sacks, but also a slightly worse than average interception rate).
  • Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons, 2008. Ryan took over following the Michael Vick debacle (perhaps you’ve heard something about that this week) and the team immediately surged to 11 wins as he averaged a career high 7.9 yards per attempt and a 7.0 ANYA as a rookie.

After that, the dropoff is pretty large. Much was made of Sam Bradford’s year last season when he threw a lot but didn’t gain many yards and actually had below average production on a per play basis. The next most productive rookie years are guys like Charlie Batch, Peyton Manning, Steve Grogan or Jim McMahon, but they were pretty much league average passers as rookies. The four above (and Newton so far) are the only ones to be more than a standard deviation better than the league average.

Wherever he ends up on the list, I don’t see any reason to believe he’s going to decline so badly that he will fall off it, and he may end up, once you also account for his running, as the best modern era true rookie quarterback. He’s on his way to iconic status as a rookie, though he still has to develop to be among the league’s elite.

[photo via Getty]

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