Cam Newton Is Playing His Best Football

After a few weeks of struggles, the mercurial Carolina Panthers quarterback has turned the offense around.

The Carolina Panthers find themselves with a 4-1 record, and much of the early success to be attributed to a great defense.

The defense remains one of the league’s best units -- 9th by Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points per play -- but the team as gotten better thanks to an increase in production from the passing game. Carolina now ranks 12th by Adjusted NEP per play as an offense, 8th by Adjusted Passing NEP per play. (NEP, by the way, is our in-house metric that breaks down how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation given down, distance-to-go, and yard line. For more information, visit our glossary.)

That change has come from quarterback Cam Newton, who is playing his best football of the season -- and possibly of his career.

A Quick Turnaround

Through the first five weeks of 2017, Newton ranks 5th among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back. There’s still plenty of season to go, but would be his best ranking of his career. His current 0.23 Passing NEP per drop back is also currently the highest in his career as a passer, including his 2015 MVP season -- though it should be noted that year he added much more value on the ground as a runner. But in terms of passing the ball, Newton has taken another step forward.

Below is a chart of Newton’s seasons by Passing NEP per drop back, with the silver line representing the league average among 100-plus drop back passers in each given year.

What makes that progress even more stunning is how poorly Newton and the rest of the Panthers offense started the season. Through the first three weeks, Newton was one of the league’s worst quarterbacks:

Weeks Comp/Att Yards TD:INT PassNEP/DB
1-3 51/83 (61.4%) 566 2:4 -0.20

Newton’s transformation has taken place over the past two games against the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions. While the Patriots have surprisingly been one of the league’s worst defenses over the first five weeks -- 29th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play -- the Lions have just as surprisingly been one of the best -- 4th by the same metric. Newton found success against both:

Weeks Comp/Att Yards TD:INT PassNEP/DB
4-5 48/62 (77.4%) 671 6:1 0.56

What's Changed?

There have been a few reasons why Newton has seen such a turnaround over the past two weeks. Let's go through a couple:

The Emergence of Devin Funchess

With injuries to Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin, Newton lost his top two pass catchers. However with those two out, there’s been an opportunity for Devin Funchess to step up -- and step up he has. Funchess saw 19 targets over the first three weeks of the season (21 percent target share), but over the past two weeks he’s seen 17 targets (27.4 percent). By Reception NEP per target, Funchess more than doubled his efficiency compared to the first three weeks of the season, though having 3 touchdowns in that time can have that effect.

Weeks Rec/Targets Yards TDs Rec NEP Rec NEP/T
1-3 10/19 146 0 10.2 0.54
4-5 14/17 123 3 19.47 1.15

Funchess has been the go-to for Newton over this stretch, during which time he's been less reliant on forcing the ball to Christian McCaffrey. Over the first few weeks of the season, it appeared Carolina’s game plan was hope McCaffrey could create in space while not doing enough to create said space. McCaffrey has 23 targets in the first three games (25.6 percent target share), but that was cut down to 13 (21 percent) over the past two games. That’s allowed the offense as a whole to flow more fluidly.

More Creativity

The Panthers spent much of the offseason talking about how they wanted to evolve the offense, but once the games started there was really no secret plan unveiled -- it was a typical offense that tried to force-feed its one new playmaker. But over the past two games, the offense has started to open up. There were the bunch formations that took the Patriots by surprise and against the Lions, the Panthers got even more creative.

Part of that was the addition of more play-action into the offense to set up big plays. Heading into Week 5, the Panthers had run play-action on just 15 percent of their pass plays, which was 22nd in the league per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders. On those plays, they picked up just 5.1 yards per pass, which ranked 29th.

This isn’t an anomaly, either.

The Panthers were 16th in play-action percentage in 2016 (18 percent) and just 30th in yards per play (6.0). And while the Panthers ran the 2nd-highest percentage in 2015 during Newton’s MVP season (27 percent), they were 28th in yards per play (6.8).

Against the Lions, the Panthers used play-action to their advantage, most notably for a 57-yard strike to Ed Dickson out of a heavy formation on 3rd-and-1 in the second quarter.

Then there’s the touchdown to McCaffrey that happened two plays later. Many teams this year are using option concepts with a shovel pass built in and Carolina used that with Newton, Jonathan Stewart, and McCaffrey. On the play, three defenders followed Newton and Stewart on the option look to the left, which left McCaffrey with an open path to the end zone on the shovel.

Running Again

Part of what makes Newton such a dangerous quarterback is how he can also beat defenses with his legs. Carolina wanted to have the quarterback run less to keep him healthy, but it's such a big part of his game.

Newton has run more in the past two games than he did during the first three weeks, though the difference is one total rush. And while Newton was technically more efficient to start the season, his willingness to run more is something that defenses have to account for -- the McCaffrey touchdown being a perfect example.

Weeks Rushes Yards TDs Rush NEP Rush NEP/Att
1-3 14 46 1 6.04 0.6
4-5 15 44 1 2.93 0.24

Going Deep

Deep passing has also been a hallmark of Newton’s game. Newton has long been a more vertical passer -- he has a career aDOT of 10.1 -- but part of the “new offense” was to scale back how far Newton needed to throw the ball. But with the new-"new offense" opening up, the quarterback has been able to take some more shots down the field.

Newton has thrown for more yards on passes that have traveled at least 15 yards downfield in the past two games and by NEP, his production has more than doubled in total and efficiency.

Weeks Comp/Att Yards TD:INT Pass NEP Pass NEP/DB
1-3 9/17 220 1:1 10.67 0.63
4-5 8/12 299 1:1 22.25 1.85

What's Next?

On Thursday, Carolina will take on the Philadelphia Eagles, who have the 16th-best defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. After that they play a stable of currently mediocre defenses in the Chicago Bears (17th), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (19th), and Atlanta Falcons (19th), before facing the 10th-ranked Miami Dolphins prior to a Week 11 bye.

This season there’s been a bigger sample of bad offensive games from Carolina than good ones. But Newton and the Panthers can continue on this offensive upswing through the next few weeks, it’s going to be hard to write them off as serious contenders in the NFC.