Examining Cam Newton in the clutch


A common criticism of Cam Newton is that he doesn’t perform well in the clutch, and that he is the main reason why the Panthers blow many games in the second half. The Panthers have led in 13 of the 14 games they have played in, so there is some basis to this argument. However, it is important to use objective information to see if Cam Newton really is worse in crunch time.

The easiest way to examine Newton’s play in the fourth quarter and second half is to look at his splits. His adjust-yards per attempt total on the season is 7.0, and that total is at 9.0 in the first quarter. In the second quarter, he has an AY/A of 7.0, it is at a paltry 5.3 in the 3rd quarter, and it is at 6.8 in the 4th quarter. It is evident that he plays worse in the 2nd half, and this has to do with his interceptions. Newton, which is understandable considering he is a rookie, makes much more mistakes under the pressure that comes at the end of the game. His efficiency is unchanged, because he averages 7.8 yards per attempt in both halves. However, Newton has thrown 12 TDs and 5 INTs in the first half compared to just 5 TDs and 11 picks in the second half this season. Cam also sees a decrease in completion percentage, and his QB Rating takes a huge drop from 94.4 to 70.6 in the second half.

Two minute drills aren’t just Madden folklore, they are an important time for quarterbacks and often make or break legacies. So far this season, Cam Newton has struggled when the cards are down. His quarterback rating is at 75.5, it is usually 82.3, but his completion percentage actually increases from 59.6% to 61.2% with two minutes left in the half. The problem is that his efficiency drops a full yard per play from 7.8 to 6.8 yards per attempt, and this is because he doesn’t air it out as much. It seems like he is too timid during this time, and it is interesting to note his second quarter yard per attempt average mirrors is average with two minutes left.

This season, Newton’s only game-winning drive came against the Jacksonville Jaguars; and it really wasn’t that special. He hasn’t conjured up a signature comeback victory yet, but that doesn’t mean Cam is worse than Tim Tebow because of this. It’s quite obvious that he’s the far better player, but there are some who have doubts about Newton in the clutch. His production does tail off at the end of the game, but he is just a rookie in the end. However, clutch play goes beyond the 4th quarter, even though it may be the most important time for  a QB, and 3rd down plays are also considered clutch.

It is important to note that Cam Newton makes most of his mistakes on first down, as he has thrown 7 picks and 2 touchdowns on first downs. He has also thrown 8 TDs and 4 INTs on third down, and his QB Rating consistently increases with each increasing down. Cam averages the same yards per attempt on each down- 7.8, his season average- but the disparity between touchdowns and interceptions is the difference.

I think this has to do with risk assessment, and this can also be seen in Cam Newton’s more timid approach with two minutes left in the third quarter. Either Newton feels safer on first downs and, as a result, decides to take more risks; or it’s just small sample size. I have a feeling it is mainly the latter, but I also believe that Newton does try to gun it more on first downs. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this in the comments section below, because it would stimulate an interesting debate about the mentality of our favorite rookie quarterback.

I haven’t talked about Newton’s change in approach when running the football when looking at these split stats, and what stands out to me is that he is a better running quarterback as the downs increase. He averages a pedestrian- for a quarterback running with the ball- 4.1 yards per carry on first downs, a solid 5.3 YPC on second downs, and an impressive 6.7 yards per carry on third downs. The lowest number of times he runs are on second downs (32 carries) with the highest being on third downs (41), so sample size isn’t a factor with the numbers being so close together. Cam is a much more effective rusher in the first half, as he averages 6.4 yards per carry in the opening half and two yards less in the second. With two minutes left in any half, Newton’s YPC pummels down to 3.9 (5.3 season average).

The final, and perhaps the most interesting, split shows how well a quarterback performs when behind, when ahead, and when both teams are tied. The numbers are exactly what you would expect from a QB, and this especially holds true for a rookie signal-caller.

The Auburn product is actually at his best when tied, and it seems like he is more accurate in tie ballgames. Cam completes 61.2% of his passes and has his best TD:INT ratio (5:3) when the Panthers are tied, and his QB Rating sits at 89.8. When the former Heisman winner is ahead, he completes more check-down passes and averages just 7.3 yards per attempt with an 82.8 QB Rating. However, Newton’s splits when behind start making things interesting.

As most quarterbacks do when playing catch-up, Cam Newton starts airing it out to try and cover the deficit. The result is a stellar 8.1 yards per attempt, but a not-so-impressive 9 interceptions and 7 touchdowns (his worst ratio in any of the three). He completes just 58.4% of his passes  and has a 78.6 QB Rating, and these numbers are, again, definitely expected to come from a rookie quarterback.

In the end, the numbers do back up the notion that Cam isn’t quite as good in the clutch as he normally is. Is he much worse? No. The evidence says that Newton is slightly worse in the clutch, but really it all has to do with rookie mistakes for him. While I will admit that he doesn’t perform as well as usual when the game’s on the line, he isn’t that much worse and the concern will be meaningless in the future.

If you look at the best quarterback in the NFL in his first year as a starter- that would be Aaron Rodgers- he wasn’t as good in the second half. Rodgers’s QB Rating dropped from 100.5 in the first half to a more human 87.0, and his QB Rating in the second half was a terrible 69.4. His stats when trailing in the game reflect what is happening to Carolina’s QB in his rookie year, so there really is nothing to worry about. With experience, Newton’s second-half struggles will be no more, and the Panthers will maintain those leads that were built up. Yeah, the Panthers will be scary good in the very near future. Memo to the Saints and Falcons: Don’t look back now, because we’re ready to take back the division.

Tags: Aaron Rodgers Cam Newton

  • LouisMitchell

    While your statistics are flawless .. I feel your analysis is somewhat lacking.

    “The Panthers have led in 13 of the 14 games they have played in” …

    So where does the defense figure into the loses? In my opinion ALL but two of the loses lie at the defenses doorstop.

    Also please consider that when ahead customarily offensive play calling becomes less aggressive, perhaps this is the reason for the drop in Yards Per Completion ….

    Lets look at Cam’s numbers and T. Brady’s

    Total Yards

    Cam – 3722 pass yards + 609 Rushing + 27 Receiving = 4,358

    Brady – 4593 pass + 92 rushing = 4,685

    Games with no picks

    Cam – 5 ( 9 if you count preseason )

    Brady – 8 ( 10 if you count preseason )

    Games with Multi Picks

    Cam – 4 games ( 4 vs. det , 3 vs. GB, 3 and 2 vs. ATL )

    Brady – 3 games ( 4 vs.. Bills, 2 vs. Dallas, 2 vs. Giants )

    Touchdowns

    Cam – 17 passing 13 Rushing = 30

    Brady – 36 passing = 36

    I can’t till wait till next season …

  • TruePanthersFan

    Excellent analysis and I made it in week 2. Everything is pretty much dead on and I have been banned from a few Panthers forums for bringing this up.

    In addition to this, one should also pay attention to Carolina’s yards after catch and our receivers. We’re at the top of the league in yards after catch.

    Our best receiver in yards after catch is Johnathan Stewart. Most people compare Cam Newton in an Air Coryell style offense to Jimmy Clausen in a John Fox style offense.

    I assure you even if Jimmy Clausen played, he would get a lot more yards this year.

    Another over inflated statistic is the touchdowns. While Cam Newton may have a lot of rushing touchdowns, one should point out his passing touchdowns are lacking and some of our other players are having to take a back seat.

    Steve Smith, the #3 receiver in the NFL, currently has over 1300 yards but only 6 touchdowns. Calvin Johnson, has 14 and Welker has 9.

    Our running backs have also had taken a secondary role in touchdowns scores this year. A lot of people are crediting Cam Newton for stats that have a lot to do with other players.

    The one he has most control over, his interception efficiency ratio is near the bottom of the league. Nowhere near guys like Brady, Aaron, even Matt Moore. Tim Tebow, a guy who is criticized for completion percentage leads the league with the highest interception efficiency ratio.

    It’s been proven time and time ago that turnovers are the deal breaks in an NFL game. Also, the best quarterbacks that have ever lived and won Super Bowls like Joe Montana, Tom Brady and eventually many years later John Elway, did it because of low interception efficiency.

    Cam Newton has a lot to learn about what makes a great quarterback in the NFL and so do his fans who are crediting him on less important stats that have more to do with others, ignoring the more important quarterback qualities, and forgetting a lot about the rest of our team.

  • TruePanthersFan

    Excellent analysis and I made the same observation earlier in the season. Everything is pretty much dead on but there is more to this story.

    In addition to this, one should also pay attention to Carolina’s yards after catch, their offensive style and receivers. They’re at the top of the league in yards after catch.

    Carolina’s best receiver in yards after catch is Johnathan Stewart. Most people compare Cam Newton in an Air Coryell style offense to Jimmy Clausen in a John Fox style offense.

    I assure you even if Jimmy Clausen played, he would get a lot more yards this year.

    Another over inflated statistic is the touchdowns. While Cam Newton may have a lot of rushing touchdowns, one should point out his passing touchdowns are lacking and some of our other players are having to take a back seat.

    Steve Smith, the #3 receiver in the NFL, currently has over 1300 yards but only 6 touchdowns. Calvin Johnson, has 14 and Welker has 9.

    Our running backs have also had taken a secondary role in touchdowns scores this year. A lot of people are crediting Cam Newton for stats that have a lot to do with other players.

    The one he has most control over, his interception efficiency ratio is near the bottom of the league. Nowhere near guys like Brady, Aaron, even Matt Moore. Tim Tebow, a guy who is criticized for completion percentage leads the league with the highest interception efficiency ratio yet he’s deemed inaccurate because if his completion percentage. Most people confuse completion percentage with accuracy, and one is 50% dependent on your receivers.

    While accuracy is harder to measures, it’s been proven time and time ago that turnovers are the deal breakers in an NFL game. Some of the best quarterbacks that have ever lived and won multiple Super Bowls like Joe Montana, Tom Brady and eventually many years later John Elway, did it because of low interception efficiency. In John’s case the opponent’s also threw 1 or more interceptions in the two he won. In the three he lost, he threw more interceptions than the opposing quarterback. The number of Super Bowl winners or even season long winning teams have that have had more turnovers than their opponents can probably be counted on one hand. It takes a lot of yards and points to make up for turnovers, especially in bad spots, or offensive stalls.

    It may seem like I am trying to take a lot of credit from what he has done, but Cam Newton has a lot to learn about what makes a great quarterback in the NFL and so do some of his fans who are crediting him on less important stats that have more to do with others, ignoring the more important quarterback qualities, and forgetting a lot about the rest of the Panthers team.

  • http://calltothepen.com/ SorianoJoe

    @LouisMitchell that first stat was from somebody on twitter who was saying that newton sucks in the clutch, and i was trying to prove that he isnt suddenly terrible. and please, dont count the preseason. so anyway, that first sentence was only to illustrate somebody else’s point, and that stat could be taken the other way because everybody blames the quarterback. however, i definitley agree that it is mainly on the defense for sure. Newton is really having a crazy season, and his statistics are comparable with Brady’s, although he obviously isnt there yet. And yeah man, I am psyched for next year, we comin’. Thanks for the comment, and I agree with you on all points. Now that you mention it, the playcalling is definitely a factor in all this, and that’s why I ask people to comment; they usually have better ideas than me. Thanks man for dropping by, great to hear from others.

  • http://calltothepen.com/ SorianoJoe

    @TruePanthersFan To be honest, I don’t think completion percentage or interceptions are the best measurements of accuracy, but they are all we have. I should have used interception percentage, but I had to do most of this math myself for these splits so things were getting messy. I usually like to use accuracy percentage- from the Pro Football Focus- but they don’t give their stats for free, which leaves me having to use the “traditional” numbers. I totally agree with your analysis on him benefiting from YAC, and I really want to dig up his air yards per attempt on Football Outsiders or some other sight- maybe Advanced NFL Stats- that uses this statistic. Cam eats into his own passing touchdowns, and it does hurt Smitty above all else. Thanks for liking the post, and thanks for your great analysis in the comments section. I really enjoyed reading it, and, on a last note, I agree that interceptions are deal-breakers and turnovers must be kept in check. However, he will only get better as he matures, because Elway and Aikman used to be pick-machines back when they were young and inexperienced. Again, thanks for the comment and I really appreciate all feedback; especially some very good analysis to go with the post that gets me thinking even more.

  • TruePanthersFan

    @SorianoJoe Oh absolutely they were which concerns me because it took Elway 3 years to get them in check and the first year he did they started reaching the Super Bowl. But it took him 12 years to finally get them in check in a Super Bowl. That’s a long time.

    It’s better to learn good habits early than try to break bad ones later in your career.

  • http://calltothepen.com/ SorianoJoe

    @TruePanthersFan it is better to learn now than pay for it later, and it’s amazing how these lessons in sports pertain to real life. thanks for responding and putting in your valuable insight, it’s lead to some great conversation. cam is already one of the most captivating players in the league, and we can only wonder what he will accomplish next. i think the game against the texans was a step int he right direction for him, because he learned that sometimes it isnt about the gaudy statistics and it’s just about staying back and making the right throws to help your team win. didnt make any mistakes which was a good sign in that game.