Cam Newton should have the green light to run whenever he wants this season.
In a start last week versus the Bengals, rookie Panthers QB Cam Newton finished Carolina's first drive by scampering for a 16-yard touchdown. There was nothing special about the play, particularly if you've seen Newton play football for more than 15 minutes. On third-and-11 he took a shotgun snap, and at a hint of pressure he started to glide into Cincinnati's secondary, appearing slow, yet somehow faster than everyone else. He rolled off a hit from a safety he outweighs by 30 pounds and landed in the end zone. Fifteen minutes later, on third-and-8, Newton scrambled again, this time for 26 yards. Again, this seemed like nothing odd -- unless you're talking about the National Football League.
Over the last four seasons, NFL quarterbacks have run for touchdowns of 15-plus yards four times a year on average, according to Elias. That's about once per 8,100 plays. (Minus Michael Vick, it would be more like once per 12,000 plays.) And last year, NFL quarterbacks ran for 25 or more yards 17 total times, about once per 1,900 plays. Newton did something within 15 minutes of football that, statistically, should happen about once per 12,222 NFL games (approximately 48 years).
Find a sample size small enough, and you can argue anything. But that's just the point. This didn't seem odd at all, it was just typical Newton -- only the statistical improbablity looks odd. The quarterback looks the same. The question is whether this rare gift, combined with just average passing ability, can make him elite. The evidence says it might. It also says there's no reason Newton shouldn't run like crazy.
Before the NFL combine, Newton's personal QB coach discussed how Newton could compare to Ben Roethlisberger because of his ability to extend the play. "When you think of his feet as a weapon, you're thinking the wrong way," he told me. He meant that Newton's ability to run made him equally dangerous as a passer. He has Roethlisberger's size and arm, his coach argued, but even greater evasiveness. Bills GM Buddy Nix concurred: "Guys like that, they make your line look better, because tacklers can't get them down, and receivers look better, because they have time to get open."
The question is whether Newton should be backpedaling just to prove he can.
First, consider the precedent. There's an argument to be made that Newton was, for one season, the greatest running quarterback in college football history. Particularly when you consider that it wasn't even his primary function, and his team won a title. His 1,473 yards rushing ranks third all time in FBS, miles ahead of the single-season totals of plausible dual-threat NFL QBs -- like The Golden Calf of Bristol, Michael Vick, Brad Smith, Vince Young and Steve Young -- as well as pure running QBs like Tommie Frazier. When Auburn wanted to grind teams down, the quarterback didn't need to turn around and hand the ball off; he'd take his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame and steer it into a linebacker as the clock ticked away on another Auburn win. At the same time, he was one interception from being college football's highest-rated passer last season; his 182.05 passer rating was good for the No. 2 spot, a hair behind Boise State's Kellen Moore.
When Newton was taken No. 1 overall, it really wasn't the second Vick-type pick at that spot, the latest runner-slash-passer who had to evolve. It was the first Cam Newton. Vick is a gifted athlete who can throw the ball, but because of his 6-foot, 210-pound frame, he terrifies his coaches when he takes hits as a runner. He's played 16 games in only one of his eight NFL seasons. Newton is a gifted athlete who can throw the ball, but he's 4 inches taller than Ray Lewis and about the same weight. Comparing Vick to Newton isn't apples and oranges, but Newton is a much, much bigger apple.
According to Total QBR, both of those runs last week were of great value, because of clutch-weighting. Both were third-down runs that picked up first downs and increased the Panthers' expected point total. In the case of the touchdown run, it also increased the actual point total. Newton will develop as a passer, but right now, the newer measurements of quarterback value recognize that yards are yards. Newton isn't a good running quarterback because he can pick up key yards with his feet, he's a good quarterback, just as Josh Freeman and Aaron Rodgers were last year as the league's best scrambling QBs.
This isn't to say Newton can't or won't throw. There are some reasons Newton can even succeed early as a passer:
• The shotgun conversion is often overstated. In 2010, 37.5 percent of all passes were from the shotgun. Is Peyton Manning less of a passer because he completed 74.5 percent of his throws last year from that formation?
• Newton's accuracy and reads are a question, but his fundamentals are largely in place.
• As Nix said, Newton's ability as a passer will often stem from extending the play, not just reading it. Great quarterbacks make good reads, but "The Catch" happened when the first few reads weren't there.
More likely, though, it'll be difficult for a while for Newton to be a good thrower, just as it is for any rookie quarterback. The accuracy isn't there yet, and it's a faster game in the NFL. You can see his head spinning. But in the push to develop him as a passer, Carolina's coaches shouldn't do a lot to hinder Newton's ability to totally change a game with his feet. "We have to really study him and watch him," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said this week. In listening to Rivera, you wonder if he's trying to make up his mind not just on whether to start Newton, but on what he should ask him to be.
He should ask him Newton to be himself. The passing gains will come. In the meantime, telling Newton not to run would be to take away his one elite skill.