Was Cam Newton's 2015 the Best Quarterback Season Ever?

Some analysts have said that Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's last year was the best ever. Are they right?

There is an odd thing happening to the National Football League.

It's something that we young people have only heard of in tales of yore or seen remnants of in pick-up games on abandoned lots. We did not live through its golden age, before the time of ubiquitous passing and furious five-wide receiver offensive sets. We merely saw suggestions of it before this decade, hints that it would become more fact than fiction.

Like a phoenix, the dual-threat quarterback has risen from the ashes of the Air Raid passing schemes. It has become more than a pre-merger relic, and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is making it an art form. Some people believe Newton represents a new kind of NFL quarterback, but his ability to gun the ball downfield or run with it is reminiscent of vintage signal-callers like Bart Starr.

There's little doubt Newton's 2015 season is one of the most unique in NFL history, but is it one of the best ever?

Running Ragged

One win from delivering Carolina’s first Super Bowl title, Newton is revolutionizing the NFL offense by kicking it back nearly 100 years. In 2015, Newton passed for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns, while also rushing for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns, dabbing all the way.

But does that make it one of the best seasons ever?

There are a few ways to examine that question, and one of them is to examine how unique his season is. Few quarterbacks have been able to create on the ground as well as they can in the air, but Newton is one. How many passers have had seasons like his before?

Using  Pro Football Reference’s Play Index finder, I first checked to see how many players had had a season equal to, or better than, Cam Newton’s 2015 in both passing and rushing yards. The only quarterback to have a better season than the Panthers’ passer was Newton himself, who bested these marks in both his rookie 2011 and sophomore 2012.

Year Player Pass Yd. Rush Yd.
2011 Cam Newton 4,051 706
2012 Cam Newton 3,869 741
2015 Cam Newton 3,837 636

If we even loosen the restrictions to 3,500 passing yards and 500 rushing yards, only three other player seasons join the mix:

Year Player Pass Yd. Rush Yd.
1988 Randall Cunningham 3,808 624
2002 Daunte Culpepper 3,853 609
2015 Russell Wilson 4,024 553

Now, raw numbers can be somewhat misleading -- impressive as they may be. How good does Cam’s season look when we examine his rates?

He had a 7.74 passing yards per attempt (YPA), a 4.82 rushing yards per carry (YPC), a 7.10 percent Passing Touchdown Rate, and a 2.02 percent Interception Rate; has anyone matched those numbers?

Among quarterbacks with at least 100 passing attempts in a season, only three players -- Cam included -- have breached those marks.

Year Player YPA YPC TD% INT%
1971 Roger Staubach 8.92 8.37 7.10 1.90
2014 Aaron Rodgers 8. 8.43 6.26 0.96
2015 Cam Newton 7.74 4.82 7.10 2.02

Newton’s hybridity is a shockingly unique skillset, and it’s clear that his season was one-of-a-kind.

But was it unequivocally the best ever for a quarterback?

On the Prowl

Fortunately for us, we have a way of assessing the question of “best” in a firm, quantitative way. We don’t have to rely on narratives; we have data to prove or debunk the idea that Newton’s 2015 season was the best performance ever by a quarterback. That data is numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Newton completes a pass for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

Using numberFire’s NEP database (going from 2000 through 2015), I ran a couple of searches to see just how incredible Newton’s 2015 season was. The first was to find how well he performed, so Newton’s 2015 in terms of Passing NEP and Rushing NEP -- as well as their per-play variants -- are below.

Year Player Pass NEP Per-Play Rush NEP Per-Play
2015 Cam Newton 105.04 0.20 41.20 0.35

Now that we have a baseline for Newton’s 2015 season, we can compare his 2015 production to others. In fact, there have been no quarterbacks with at least 300 drop backs since the new millennium to achieve 100.00 Passing NEP while simultaneously tallying 40.00 Rushing NEP in the same season.

Even if we loosen the restrictions to 75.00 Passing NEP and 30.00 Rushing NEP, only one quarterback had a season anywhere near as dynamic as Cam’s.

Year Player Pass NEP Per-Play Rush NEP Per-Play
2000 Rich Gannon 93.83 0.19 35.85 0.40

In terms of rates, though, Cam has company. When looking at quarterbacks with at least 300 drop backs and 30 rushing attempts and equal or higher per-play NEP values in both categories, Aaron Rodgers shows up on the list three times (2009, 2010, 2013), Ben Roethlisberger appears twice (2007, 2010), and David Garrard, Jeff Garcia, Tom Brady, and Trent Green each have a season on the list. Even with the increase in offensive efficiency over the years, Cam is in some pretty rare company.

King Cam

So, what can we glean from this? It’s clear that Cam Newton’s talent is one of a kind, as evidenced from the fact that no one has ever had the kind of season he had in 2015. The unique configuration of his Passing NEP value and Rushing NEP value makes him the most proficient versatile ever for sure, and the box score backs that up as well.

What makes him so incredible, however, isn’t necessarily that he is the most outstanding quarterback or rusher alone; it’s that he is very good in both.

Was his 2015 season the best quarterback season of all time? Our numbers say no. In Total NEP (Passing NEP plus Rushing NEP), Newton’s 2015 ranks 34th since 2000, bested by elite passing seasons like Peyton Manning's 2013 or Brady’s 2007. Passing the ball inherently adds more value than rushing it, and while the most prolific rushing quarterbacks carry the rock over 100 times a year, the highest-volume passing attacks drop back upwards of 600 times a season, giving six times the chance to generate expected points.

While Cam’s past year may only be “very good” instead of “elite” by these measures, the beauty of his style of play is that he is rejecting our previous understandings of how football is played. In terms of sheer value, he’s nothing special; but in terms of proficient versatility, Cam is king.