It's an Insider article, so sssshhhhh
With just one season as a starting quarterback in college, Cam Newton was supposed to be a raw product coming out of the draft, an inexperienced talent who was ill-prepared for the NFL.
It might be time to reconsider that line of thinking.
In the Carolina Panthers' 28-21 loss to the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, Newton became just the sixth rookie in NFL history to throw for more than 400 yards in a single game.
Total yardage can be misleading, though. Nobody questioned Tom Brady's election as MVP last season, even though he finished just eighth in passing yards. At Football Outsiders, we measure players by defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR). We analyze every play of the NFL season and adjust it for down, distance, score, field position and other factors. Players are rewarded not just for gaining yards, but also for picking up first downs -- a 6-yard gain on third-and-10 is worth barely any more than an incomplete pass. (We do not yet calculate entertainment value above replacement, but if we did, Newton's air guitar solo in the end zone would probably also score highly.)
Newton finished with 150 total DYAR yesterday. That's an excellent figure -- the second highest of the day -- but it's not the best rookie performance in NFL history. Here are the top 10 rookie quarterback performances since 1992, judging by total DYAR:
Player Year Team Total DYAR Comp Att Yds TD Int OPP WEEK
Cade McNown 1999 CHI 197 27 36 301 4 2 DET 15
Matt Ryan 2008 ATL 191 22 30 301 1 0 CHI 6
Ryan Leaf 1998 SD 178 25 49 281 1 0 SEA 8
Byron Leftwich 2003 JAC 174 21 34 226 2 0 TB 13
Matt Ryan 2008 ATL 170 17 23 207 2 0 SD 13
Peyton Manning 1998 IND 169 17 26 210 3 0 CIN 15
Heath Shuler 1994 WAS 165 16 27 287 1 1 ARI 15
Charlie Batch 1998 DET 162 14 23 195 2 0 TB 12
Eli Manning 2004 NYG 161 16 23 182 2 1 PIT 15
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 PIT 156 14 19 221 2 1 BAL 16
Two things to note here. First, this is ranking by total DYAR, including passing and rushing. Newton's passing DYAR (159) would have made the list by itself, but he finished with negative rushing value, as eight of his runs gained 3 yards or fewer. Also, look at the far right column. All of these quarterbacks had played at least a third of a season when they posted these elite games, and most had at least three months of on-the-job training. Nobody has come close to playing like Newton did in their first action.
Newton wasn't just explosive against the Cardinals, he was efficient, too. Nearly half his drop backs resulted in productive yardage, while many quarterbacks were successful less than 40 percent of the time. Newton threw for 17 first downs or touchdowns -- only four quarterbacks had more (and two of them played Thursday night). Newton was productive on first (11-of-18 for 194 yards), second (9-of-11, 122) and third downs (4-of-8, 106).
There will be dark days ahead for Newton. He won't play every game against soft defenses like Arizona's, and he'll have to struggle through contests with multiple sacks and interceptions. It's also possible this was a one-time fluke performance. There's a reason we refer to the week after the first NFL game as "National Jump to Conclusions Week." Cade McNown, Ryan Leaf and Heath Shuler showed that even the biggest draft busts of all time can look good for one game. For now, though, he should be celebrated. Newton's first game was better than anyone in Charlotte had any right to expect.
Then the article goes on to give 3 good, 3 bad, and 3 surprising performances. Smitty made the good:
3. Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers
Well, you didn't think Newton did it all by himself, did you? Smith's eight receptions for 178 yards and two touchdowns came on only 11 targets. His 77-yard touchdown was his only third-down play of the game. Instead, the Panthers went to him early in drives. Smith produced to the tune of four receptions for 59 yards on six first-down targets, and three catches for 42 yards on four second-down throws. Seven of Smith's targets came 13 or more yards downfield, but they also tried to get him the ball in space, twice throwing him passes behind the line. Smith turned those throws into 8- and 5-yard gains.