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Friday, April 1, 2011
Myth and reality with Cam Newton

By Kevin Seifert

I've watched as the Cam Newton conversation has escalated and, most would say, devolved into personal attacks and accusations of racism. There's no doubt that any team deciding whether to draft the Auburn quarterback, including the Minnesota Vikings, has watched it unfold as well.

Character is subject to opinion, and it's fair to question the motives of someone making a harsh judgment. But ultimately, the entire conversation is relevant to the extent that it impacts Newton's performance on the field. So let's go there. What objective measures can we take of Newton's character and intangible abilities to be a quarterback?

Cam Newton
No one can deny that Cam Newton was a winner in college, as he led his teams to championships in both 2009 and 2010.
First, we have to remember that Newton was the quarterback on two different teams that won national championships. In 2009, he took Blinn (Texas) College to the NJCAA National Football Championship. This past season, he led Auburn to the BCS national championship.

It's possible that his personality has rubbed some people the wrong way, but to me, championships are the best tangible evidence of leadership we can find. You could argue that Newton's raw athletic ability simply overpowered opponents, but to me there is too much that goes into a college season to credit one supremely talented player for a title. Maybe in high school, and possibly junior college, but not at the level of the SEC.

I wasn't inside Auburn's locker room last season, or Blinn's the year before, but you would have to stack up a lot of hard evidence for me to convince me that Newton isn't a leader of some measure. If any specific examples have been cited, I've missed them.

Second, as you know, we here at ESPN.com get the enormous benefit of statistics that help us pull back the curtain on a player's performance. Everything must be taken in context, of course, but our friends at ESPN Stats & Information have circulated some information that reflects a higher level of so-called "football intelligence" than some of Newton's detractors might suggest.

For starters, Newton completed 73.5 percent of his passes last season against the blitz in conference games. He threw five touchdowns and did not throw an interception. For context, consider that Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, the other top quarterback in this draft, completed 44.8 percent of his passes in the same situation.

There are plenty of possible explanations for why Newton threw so efficiently against the blitz. His offensive line could have blocked exceptionally well. His scheme might have lent itself to friendly dump-off passes. But it could also be a hint -- gasp! -- of football intelligence, an ability to process a defensive alignment quickly and make a positive play based on a combination of instincts and scheme knowledge.

This much is clear: Generally speaking, the best quarterbacks in the NFL are usually the best at handling the blitz. In 2010, for example, here were the top seven NFL quarterbacks against the blitz based on passer rating:
  1. Tom Brady
  2. Tony Romo
  3. Aaron Rodgers
  4. Matt Cassel
  5. Josh Freeman
  6. Ben Roethlisberger
  7. Matt Ryan


Here's another measure we can consider: pocket passing. Someone (like me) who doesn't watch a ton of college football might have an impression of Newton as a freelancing athlete who prefers to run if given an opportunity. Similar quarterbacks rarely succeed in the NFL because of the complex passing decisions they'll ultimately have to make in a pro system.

So for what it's worth, Newton also outperformed Gabbert when it came to making traditional throws from the pocket. In conference games last season, Newton completed 67.6 percent of his pocket throws for 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Gabbert completed 61.1 percent, with nine touchdowns and four interceptions.

I realize Newton and Gabbert played in much different schemes last season, making the comparison something less than apples to apples. But I still think it's instructive to compare Newton's pocket performance against the quarterback who seems to be considered the more "polished" player.

I have no idea what type of personality Newton has, whether he was well-liked by his teammates or if they simply tolerated him. And I also acknowledge that character, leadership qualities and football intelligence are critical to the success of an NFL quarterback.

But here we have a quarterback who has won consecutive national championships, who handled blitzes well against some of the fastest defenses in the country last season, and who was a better pocket passer than the presumptive top quarterback in the draft. Shouldn't we at least give that kind of resume the benefit of the doubt? It's not necessarily racist to question Newton on those qualities. It just doesn't fit the objective facts as we know them.

Related: NFC South colleague Pat Yasinskas writes that the Carolina Panthers should take Newton with the No. 1 overall pick.