More Scam than Superman: Cam Newton is NFL’s Worst QB in the Clutch

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 26, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar

Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

Last season Cam Newton emerged on the NFL scene with an “S” on his chest. Some thought he was Superman on the field. Many believed he was the savior; the franchise quarterback the Carolina Panthers have never had.

This season, that “S” has taken on a different meaning.

“Sophomore.”

“Slump.”

“Struggling.”

How about “Scam”?

After his exciting 2010 season at Auburn in which he led seven game-winning drives on his way to a national championship, Newton has been the ultimate tease through 22 NFL starts with a 7-15 record.

Newton is a league-worst 1-12 (.077) when it comes to fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. Not only is it the worst active record in the league, but it is one of the worst you will ever find.

He does just enough to keep the game close for three quarters, but when it comes time to make the game-deciding plays, something goes wrong. We have chronicled every instance of this in Captain Comeback since Week 1 of last season,

Thought to be rookie growing pains, it has happened four times this season, including each of the last three games. At 1-5, Carolina can forget about competing for something relevant this season, and their sophomore icon is as much to blame as anyone for the poor start.

Last year Newton’s supporters pointed to the defense allowing too many points, and giving credit to Newton for leading a high-scoring offense. This season, the Panthers are 29th in points per drive on offense, and they have losses with final scores of 16-10, 16-12 and 19-14. That makes Carolina the 31st team since the 1970 merger to have at least three losses this early in the season when allowing fewer than 20 points.

Whether the score is 34-29 or 19-14 late in the game, the task is the same, as is the result: Newton fails to close.

 

Newton’s 2012 more of the same

The reaction to Newton’s 2012 season would not be so full of surprise had people put his rookie season in proper context. Many of the same problems from last year continue, and the six-game samples are eerily similar.

Cam Newton - First Six Games (2011 vs. 2012)

Year

Rec.

Cmp

Att.

Pct.

Yds

YPA

TD

INT

PR

Rush

Yds

YPC

TD

2011

1-5

134

229

58.5%

1847

8.07

7

9

78.3

47

207

4.40

6

2012

1-5

101

173

58.4%

1387

8.02

5

6

79.3

46

273

5.93

3

At least Newton can argue he is consistent.

With practically the same offensive teammates as 2011, almost every efficiency number for Newton is the same as last season. So is the 1-5 start, and he is even gaining more yards per carry on the ground. The difference is last year he had more volume. That does not mean he was playing any better at this point last season.

Last year they had more points (133 compared to 106 this year and 16 of those points do not belong to the offense). While the low-scoring losses are something new, the pattern of losing close games has been there since day one.

In his sometimes bizarre post-game press conference after the latest loss to Dallas, Newton said several things that detail Carolina’s situation very well.

Newton: “I sound like a broken record. And I just keep this taste, this vibe, I’m not buying it man, and I don’t know what it is, but something gonna have to change. Something gonna have to change real fast in order for us to make that next step, because it’s the same old thing. Same old thing.”

Indeed. Having 13 comeback opportunities in your first 22 starts (59.1 percent) is a ridiculous percentage of close games, and perhaps even more ridiculous is to only win one of those games.

Carolina will never go anywhere with Newton if they continue failing to close games. Unlike the Green Bay Packers, they do not blow teams out enough to manage good records overall.

Newton: “I don’t care if we kick the ball…from the 70. You know, it has to be more points up on that scoreboard, because it’s the same old thing. [Later] We just find a way to keep the game close, and just wait to see what happens at the end, and I’m getting tired of it. That’s not a formula to win. Domination is a formula to win.”

Other than that first sentence, which no human being can make sense of, this basically translates to “I’m tired of being in position to play hero and failing, so build me a team that can start front-running.”

In his seven career wins, Newton never trailed at any point in the game in five of them. That also means he’s never overcome a larger second-half deficit than five points to win a game.

Whether it’s the sulking, the sleepy eyes, celebrating a 1-yard touchdown run that left him trailing 23-6, referring to himself in the third person, the blame game, the “suggestion box”, or his lousy choice of sweater, there is a dark cloud hanging over Newton right now. His level of maturity is not anywhere close enough to handle the pressure of being the face of a franchise.

To his credit, Newton did mention a few times after Sunday’s game that he needs to play better, but that sound bite often gets lost in the media.

Lots of things get lost when trying to build a story rather than focus on the facts.

 

Worst records in the clutch

On a rain-soaked field in Carolina in Week 3 of last season, Cam Newton threw a 16-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Olsen with 4:20 left. Carolina hung on for a 16-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first start of Blaine Gabbert’s career.

Other than that moment, it has been nothing but a dozen close losses for Newton and the Panthers.

When scanning through for quarterbacks with worse career records in the clutch, it is hard to find any (min. 10 opportunities). Keep in mind this list is for only what has been observed, and is not conclusive for all of NFL history. Though good luck finding anyone worse.

The left is sorted for fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, and the right is the same 11 quarterbacks, but sorted by overall attempts at winning a game in the fourth quarter or overtime (tied or down by one score).

Career Records in 4th Quarter Comeback/Game-Winning Drive Opportunities

QB

4QC W

4QC L

Pct.

QB

4Q/OT W

4Q/OT L

Pct.

Joey Harrington

6

23

0.207

Jeff George

18

36

0.333

Chad Pennington

7

27

0.206

Chad Pennington

11

28

0.282

Ryan Fitzpatrick

5

20

0.200

Ryan Fitzpatrick

7.5

21.5

0.259

Chad Henne

3

12

0.200

Chad Henne

4

13

0.235

Jeff George

8

34

0.190

Aaron Rodgers

7

23

0.233

Sam Bradford

2

9

0.182

Joey Harrington

7

25

0.219

Aaron Rodgers

4

21

0.160

Bill Kenney

7

27

0.206

Seneca Wallace

2

11

0.154

Sam Bradford

2

10

0.167

Chris Weinke

1

9

0.100

Seneca Wallace

2

12

0.143

Bill Kenney

3

27

0.100

Chris Weinke

1

10

0.091

Cam Newton

1

12

0.077

Cam Newton

1

12

0.077

Two more No. 1 overall picks (Jeff George, Sam Bradford), a few more other active players, and former Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke. How interesting.

Now we have looked at records before and concluded they are far from the end-all, be-all of what happened. But they still provide a solid background, and anyone can see 1-12 is a problem.

Newton has three “lost comebacks” and Carolina led in the fourth quarter in six of the 12 losses. Before anyone hangs their hat on that, consider that in Chris Weinke’s 10 losses, he had two lost comebacks and Carolina led seven times in the fourth quarter.

Weinke’s first “failure” was not even legit. He had just 0:07 left to go 91 yards in Atlanta. Even Seneca Wallace has three lost comebacks (games where he did come back to take a fourth-quarter lead, but still lost).

While it is true you can pick up cheap losses that were not your fault – or a cheap win like Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 6 – the same can be said about a quarterback getting cheap touchdown runs because he was given multiple running plays by design at the one-yard line. That happens too in this league with stats.

Newton’s 12 losses are legit, and here is a list of them with some notes (positives for Newton in red).

Cam Newton's 4QC Losses

Date

Opp.

Result

Notes

9/11/2011

at CRD

L 28-21

4-yd pass on 4th & 5 at CRD 6

9/18/2011

at GB

L 30-23

3-yd run on 4th & 4 at GB 6

10/2/2011

at CHI

L 34-29

Incmp. on 4th & 10 at CAR 43 w/1:55 left

10/9/2011

NO

L 30-27

Go ahead TD pass w/12:32 left; lose lead late

10/16/2011

at ATL

L 31-17

Last 3 drives: 3 and out, 2 INT

10/30/2011

MIN

L 24-21

Olindo Mare misses 31 yd FG w/0:26 left

11/20/2011

at DET

L 49-35

Game-tying TD run/2pt pass, but INT late

12/11/2011

ATL

L 31-23

O.Mare misses 36 yd FG w/5:12 left; 4 straight incmp. at ATL 27

9/9/2012

at TB

L 16-10

Incmp on 3rd & 9 at TB 48. Last 2: 3 and out, late FG down 16-7

9/30/2012

at ATL

L 30-28

Go ahead TD pass w/7:55 left; 3rd down fumble leads to punt

10/7/2012

SEA

L 16-12

3 drives: 3 and out, awful 4th and 1 pass at SEA 1, sack/fumble

10/21/2012

DAL

L 19-14

Go ahead TD run w/11:38 left. Last 2:incmp on 4th & 1, fumble lateral

For stats, here is how Newton does on these drives compared to the rest of the game the last two years.

Type

Att.

Cmp.

Pct.

Yds

YPA

TD

INT

PR

Drives

Pts/Dr

4QC/GWD Opp.

118

60

50.8%

873

7.40

3

2

76.7

31

1.19

Other Drives

572

351

61.4%

4565

7.98

23

21

84.6

208

2.15

There is a fine line between the record and stats, because both can mislead.

Three of Newton’s best drives statistically saw him go 14 of 19 for 220 yards. They resulted in zero points, because Newton threw a 4-yard pass on a 4th and 5 at the ARZ 6, ran for a 3-yard gain on 4th and 4 at the GB 6, and short-hopped a horrific pass with a tight end wide open on 4th and 1 at the SEA 1 this season.

Three drives that were great for stats, but worthless for Carolina’s chances to win the game.

While Olindo Mare missed some big field goals last season, Newton rarely had the Panthers in great position to win the game late. You can see there was a lot of time left on the three go-ahead touchdown drives.

When Dallas got the ball back on Sunday, trailing 14-13 with 11:38 left at their own 20, they actually had a win probability of 0.46 according to Advanced NFL Stats’ WP Calculator. The game was still nearly a coin flip at that point.

While the quarterback ultimately gets credit for a 4QC or game-winning drive because one of these scoring drives led to critical points in a win, it usually takes more effort than just one drive to earn that win.

Your job is not done just because you have taken a small lead with plenty of time remaining. Ask Tom Brady and the Patriots about the importance of the four-minute offense. Games still must be closed out.

As we seen in Week 4 in Atlanta, Newton and the Panthers failed to finish the job. After taking a 28-24 lead on a screen pass touchdown, Carolina went three and out on their next drive with Atlanta now trailing 28-27.

On their next drive, Newton scrambled for one first down, but on a 3rd-and-2 run that would have iced the win, Newton fumbled after reaching the first-down mark. He lost the extra yard due to the fumble, setting up a 4th and 1, and Ron Rivera punted. Cue Matt Ryan for another classic drive, and the Panthers lost 30-28.

Some simple ball security on a run and Newton would have had the first real quality win of his career over undefeated Atlanta. Instead it ends up as another close loss for a team full of them, and another close win for a team with a large collection of them.

There have been comparisons of Newton to Vince Young, but one thing Young actually did well with was late-game situations. Young had a comeback record of 7-9 (.438) and overall was 13-11 (.542). He had an excellent game-winning drive against the Giants last year in his only opportunity with the Eagles.

Though three of Young’s game-winning drives were nothing to write home about (no passes or runs gaining any positive yards), you can subtract those out and he would still be 10-11.

You can criticize Young for many things, but unlike Newton, he was able to finish in college and in the NFL when given the opportunity.

 

More than growing pains?

When most active quarterbacks are averaging a winning percentage of around 35 percent at comebacks and 40 percent overall when including games that were tied late, you look at Newton’s 1-12 record and have to wonder if it is a result of being a young quarterback going through growing pains.

He has to get better, right? Things will even out.

The classic example would be Peyton Manning, who was 1-6 at fourth quarter comebacks and 1-8 overall as a rookie in close games in 1998. He threw eight interceptions in those moments, so the idea of him ever being a closer might have fizzled early.

However, Manning came back in his second season and tied NFL records by leading six comebacks and seven game-winning drives. Now he holds records.

Where Manning immediately made up for his rookie mistakes, with Newton we are almost seeing the opposite as he gets worse.

To see if the idea of early struggles holds up, we looked at clutch records for quarterbacks in their first two seasons only. The only restriction was that the quarterback must currently have a winning percentage of at least 40.0 percent in overall fourth quarter/overtime games. After all, the goal is to be above average.

First Two Seasons - 4QC/GWD Opportunities

QB

4QC Wins

4QC Losses

Pct.

4Q/OT Wins

4Q/OT Losses

Pct.

Ben Roethlisberger 2004-05

7

2

0.778

8

2

0.800

Tom Brady 2000-01

4

2

0.667

5

2

0.714

Matt Ryan 2008-09

3

5

0.375

7

5

0.583

Dan Marino 1983-84

3

3

0.500

5

4

0.556

Jake Plummer 1997-98

7

8

0.467

9

8

0.529

Matthew Stafford 2009-10

2

2

0.500

2

2

0.500

Alex Smith 2005-06

2

4

0.333

4

4

0.500

Drew Brees 2001-02

2

4

0.333

4

5

0.444

Peyton Manning 1998-99

7

9

0.438

8

11

0.421

Vince Young 2006-07

4

6

0.400

5

7

0.417

Warren Moon 1984-85

3

7

0.300

5

7

0.417

John Elway 1983-84

3

5

0.375

3

5

0.375

Eli Manning 2004-05

2

6

0.250

3

6

0.333

Jay Cutler 2006-07

2

5

0.286

3

6

0.333

Joe Flacco 2008-09

2

10

0.167

4

10

0.286

Cam Newton 2011-12

1

12

0.077

1

12

0.077

TOTAL

54

90

0.375

76

96

0.442

This does not appear to bode well for Newton. Joe Flacco might be in the neighborhood, though Flacco has the misfortune of all 10 of his losses in 2008-09 coming against teams with winning records (nine playoff teams). He also had three lost comebacks in those games.

As we have seen in detail with Aaron Rodgers and Bill Kenney, there is no rule that bad clutch records ever have to regress to the mean. This can surely continue for Newton, which would not speak well to his long-term prospects as a starting quarterback in this league.

 

Conclusion

We do not care what Newton does in his press conferences. He can break out a verse of N.W.A.’s “F*** tha Police” for all we care, just as long as he starts producing wins instead of close losses.

We do not care if Newton was born with or without a ridiculous “clutch gene.” All we know is that from his history in the clutch, he continues to come up small week after week, and as he is realizing, this must change immediately.

Newton needs to raise his game so we can move along with his story, because right now we are stuck in the origin chapter, which is rooted deep in the “choker quarterback” theme.  

You cannot pretend to be Superman if all you ever do in the face of adversity is wilt under the pressure.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. How many more losses before Deion Sanders turns “Whoa Cam!” into a slow, sad ballad? You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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