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.

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