Cam Newton Is Good, But He's Not the NFL's Most Valuable Player
EDIT: Since writing this article, Mr. Newton has played even better than he was at the beginning of the season. At the time this piece was written, Cam, analytically and logically, wasn't a strong candidate. Today, he certainly is. Opinions should and need to change when new information is provided, and that's exactly what's happened here.
It's easy to read an article like this and think I'm a hater. I'm not.
Cam Newton is good at football, and he's one of the better starting quarterbacks the NFL has. He's a playmaker. He disguises his team's weaknesses. And the Panthers are fortunate to have a significant franchise passer like him. After all, only a handful of NFL teams can really say they have one, too.
But MVP? The most valuable player in the NFL? Let's pump the brakes, people.
An Undefeated Start
The Panthers are undefeated, and Newton has a lot to do with that. Their 5-0 record, too, is one of the main reasons so many are talking about Newton as an MVP candidate in the first place -- when a team performs well, it's the media's duty to praise the quarterback.
The issue here -- as it always is -- is that "wins" is not a quarterback statistic. Had Russell Wilson not thrown that interception in the Super Bowl last year and instead completed the pass for a touchdown, Tom Brady wouldn't have won the title. Meanwhile, Brady had nothing to do with Wilson's throw. The outcome of the Super Bowl could have gone either way quite easily, when Brady had nothing to do with that historic play.
The truth is, while good quarterbacks do win, it's not even close to the end-all for an argument of how good a signal-caller is. Why look only at wins when you can dig deeper and actually see how the guy's performing?
Enter Net Expected Points (NEP). If you're new to numberFire, NEP is a way of showing -- through an algorithm we've built -- how many points above or below expectation a particular player performs. The reason it's so impactful is because not all box score statistics are alike -- a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-15 isn't nearly as important as a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-9, for instance. One of those plays results in a probable punt or field goal, while the other extends the drive with a first down.
You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
According to the metric, Cam Newton hasn't had nearly as good of a season as the masses think. Through five games, 20 quarterbacks have a higher Passing Net Expected Points (points added on passes) total, while Cam ranks 15th of the 32 quarterbacks with 100 attempts in Passing NEP per drop back.
I know that he runs the ball, too, but even when you factor in Rushing NEP, Newton still sits in 13th among the same 32 quarterbacks.
He's also been really inconsistent with his throws. On the year, Newton's 44.3% Success Rate -- the percentage of passes that contribute positively in terms of NEP -- is only better than seven quarterbacks. In other words, the main reason he's not ranked lower in Passing NEP is because he's been able to complete bigger plays, which isn't a bad thing, but it's also not a reliable thing.
What's even worse, too, is that the Panthers haven't faced the toughest schedule in the world to start the year. That's not to diminish what they've done as a team at all, but on the individual level, facing the Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay secondaries shouldn't really produce average results. On the year, per our numbers, the Jags rank 32nd against the pass, the Texans are 16th, the Saints are 30th and the Buccaneers are 23rd.
The only tough secondary Newton's faced this season was Seattle, a team ranked 10th against the pass according to our numbers.
As a result, when adjusted for strength of schedule, the Panthers have the 19th-ranked passing offense in the NFL per NEP. Teams ahead of the Panthers in passing effectiveness (again, adjusted for strength of opponent) include Kansas City, Oakland, Buffalo and Detroit, just to name a few. You know, because there are 18 of them.
Of course, Cam truthers are now shouting at their laptops talking about the weapons Newton has at his disposal. So let's address that.
A Lack of Weapons
No wonder the Panthers' passing offense ranks 19th in the NFL.
A problem with this excuse, however, is that other quarterbacks in the league are struggling with a lack of weapons as well. Perhaps the best example is Josh McCown.
McCown, Cleveland's starting quarterback, has spent the year throwing to Travis Benjamin, Gary Barnidge, Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins. Benjamin is a 5'10'' receiver with a ton of speed (sound familiar, Panther fans?), Hawkins is shorter than my mom, Hartline has one of the worst touchdown rates you'll find, and Barnidge is a 30-year-old tight end with 44 career receptions prior to the 2015 season.
There's a pretty easy argument to be made that McCown's weapons are even worse than Newton's. That's a somewhat subjective take, but given the fact that Newton has one of the best pass-catching tight ends in football, Greg Olsen, it seems reasonable to give Cam the edge.
Yet, through six weeks, McCown has outplayed Newton. Of course it hasn't shown up in the win column, but I'm sure if Josh McCown could play on the defensive line, he would.
McCown has a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.14, which is 0.05 expected points higher than Newton's 0.09. Even when you factor in rushing, McCown still ranks higher in expected points added.
And schedule-wise, the Browns have faced much more difficult competition -- the Jets, Broncos and Chargers are all top-12 secondaries according to our numbers, with the first two teams ranking in the top four.
Other factors obviously play into all of this as well, like running back play, offensive line play (for what it's worth, Football Outsiders has the Panthers with better pass protection than the Browns) and so on. Those are all valid. And I would actually count them as incredibly valid if Cam Newton was, you know, playing well above average. But he hasn't been. And the numbers show that.
This isn't to say Josh McCown is a better quarterback, or that he'll finish as a better quarterback this year. To think that would be foolish. Instead, it's just an example of another quarterback performing at a similar level through the air despite having bad passing targets.
The Real MVP Candidates
If we're picking early MVP candidates -- and let's just keep the conversation to quarterbacks only -- where does Tom Brady, who's torching the league, fall? What about Aaron Rodgers, who lost his top wideout in the preseason, has watched his number-two wide receiver suffer through a shoulder injury all year, and has turned the Giants' trash into the Packers' treasure? Andy Dalton deserves some love, too, for leading the league in passing efficiency, guiding the Bengals to the third best schedule-adjusted offense this season. And we can't forget about Carson Palmer.
Are we sure this is Cam Newton's doing? Are we positive Newton has been the force guiding the Panthers to a 5-0 record, and not the team's top-10 defense? Because at this point in time, if math determined the MVP -- and let's be honest, it'd be better that way than seeing the winner be crowned because of wins -- Cam Newton wouldn't really be a candidate.