Within Panthers Twitter, the cries to bench Sam Darnold and bring Cam Newton have become deafening since Week 4 when the Panthers lost their first game to the Dallas Cowboys 28-36.
Recently, there has even been a picture circulating with a picture of Cam accompanied by the hashtags: #BringCamHome and #KeepPounding.
The comments are littered with claims that bringing Cam back would make the fanbase content for the first time since the Panthers last made the playoffs. Getting Cam back is the answer to the Quarterback carousel that Carolina has experienced since Cam became injured early in the 2019 season.
Now, I genuinely do not believe that Cam Newton is the solution, and I do not think Sam Darnold is the answer either. The jury is largely still out on him, in my opinion. I believe that a better offensive line is needed to evaluate him, but I’ll get into that later.
The point is, while Sam Darnold may or may not be the future of the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton certainly is not.
On Cam Newton
Cam Newton’s 2015 season was quite easily the best season at the quarterback position in the history of the Carolina Panthers. Cam threw for 3,837 yards, had 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Not only did he have an incredible passing season, but he had 10 rushing touchdowns and added another 600 yards on the ground.
As everyone knows, the Panthers went 15-1 that season and made a run to Superbowl 50 where they lost to the Denver Broncos 10-24.
At the time, I was devastated that the Panthers had lost to the Broncos and fell just short of a Superbowl. But I also thought that Cam had the potential to be the Panthers franchise QB of the next decade.
But little did I know that Cam would not even spend a decade with the Panthers, and barely a decade in the NFL.
And I think that is the problem that Panthers fans are grappling with. When they think of Cam Newton, they think back to the 2015 season, not back to the Cam Newton that last played for the Panthers and Patriots.
2015 Cam Newton
The Cam Newton of 2015 is a phenomenal football player. Beyond the stat line I mentioned earlier, he was incredible from an adjusted passing perspective well. (For these stat lines an average score is 100, above 100 is above average, below is of course below).
In the 2015 regular season, Cam Newton had a TD%+ of 132 (league-leading!) INT%+ of 107, a Sack%+ of 98, and a Rate+ of 115.
It doesn’t stop there though, Y/A+ was 113, NY/A+ of 108 AY/A+ of 10, and his Completion%+ was 83.
If your worst stats are slightly below average in a sack category, and below average in terms of completion, but firmly above average everywhere else, you’re doing pretty well.
The following seasons showed some slight decline (see the link above to find the stats for yourself, they come courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference), but 2018 was actually fairly improved, and while not MVP caliber, it was still good.
2019 Cam Newton
However, 2019 was not a good season by any means (I know it was a two-game sample size, which is limited but it’s all I have). All the categories Cam dominated in 2015? Incredible decline.
For Y/A+, NY/A+, AY/A+, and ANY/A+, Newton scored well in the 80s’ (below average). His completion%+ was 66 and his TD%+ was 53 (WOOF!) And his rating+ was 72.
He did have rank better in INT%+ (120) and his Sack%+ was slightly above average; but either way, both of those categories hardly support the drop in the others. That plus his injuries and I can understand why Carolina was ready to move on from Cam.
New England Cam Newton
This is where the story takes an interesting turn, however. In New England Cam actually improved by his advanced passing metrics. He was perfectly average in Y/A+, he scored a 96 on NY/A+, 91 on AY/A+, and 89 ANY/A+.
Still below average, but improved. He improved drastically improved his Completion%+, 106 and his TD%+ increased to 76. It was not all good news however, his INT%+ dropped to 91 and his Sack%+ to 88, but his Rating+ stat jumped up to 88.
By and large, Cam was still below average but had shown improvement, on a new team and in a new system to boot. My problem with Cam’s performance is that the Patriots by no means had a poor offensive line; in fact, PFF had ranked it fourth, and going into this season it was projected to be third in the NFL. A below-average statistical performance behind one of the best offensive lines in football is problematic.
And I would be willing to argue that the Panthers who finished 18th in the NFL last season and were projected to be 30th this year would have seen Cam continue his decline.
I do want to state for the record that I legitimately think that the Patriots should have kept Cam. He was a fairly cheap player, who while not great, performed well enough. I also think that there is something to be said for Cam getting COVID: I think it impacted his performance for the worse and he should have been given some time in this season to earn the job.
I also think it is fairly ridiculous that Cam has not been signed to a new team, I think most teams can make a solid case as to why they could take a flyer and sign him on the cheap.
The Panthers future QB
I understand that Darnold has not looked good thus far through the season, and I have been yelling at my TV like the rest of you. But I do come bearing (some) good news: Darnold has improved in Carolina, albeit slightly.
Darnold was firmly entrenched in the ’70s in the same categories discussed with Newton: Y/A+ NY/A+. AY/A+, ANY/A+ Competion%+, TD%+ Sack%+ and Rate+. His one bright side is that he scored an 85 in INT%+, but it is pretty easy to see why Darnold was sent away by the Jets.
This season Darnold scores in the low ’80s in pretty much every category, but with a noticeable bright side of Y/A+ being 91 and his Sack%+ of 87. The obvious retort to those numbers is that they have been on the decline during Carolina’s 0-4 stretch and are unlikely to improve, which is 100% fair.
My response would be that A. Darnold does not have CMC, which I think is a huge deal, B. the offensive line has simply been atrocious, and C. he is not getting help from his wide receivers.
This one is relatively straightforward: CMC changes how teams play you and how you call a game as a coach. My projections system, ZLO, has CMC as a 147, making him the single most valuable member of the Panthers (as a point of reference Chuba Hubbard is a 67).
He simply allows you to do more things offensively and forces the opposition to take him into account. Missing your best piece on offense is going to hamstring an offense.
The Offensive Line
Coming into the season, I knew this offensive line would be poor; I didn’t know how bad it would be. The Panthers team pass block win rate is 49% which is tied with Pittsburgh for 29th in the NFL. The team-run block win rate is 66% which is 28th in the NFL.
On top of that, Darnold has been pressured on 28.7% of his dropbacks, which is MORE than he was pressured in any season with the Jets.
He has also been hurried 36 times through seven games, averaging out to about five hurries per game, a mark on track to be the second-highest in his four seasons in the NFL.
Darnold has also been sacked three times a game, which would be the highest mark of his career.
Say what you will about Darnold, but if you are going to take someone who struggled behind a poor offensive line and then stick him behind a WORSE offensive line, and then be upset when he struggles, well, you’re the Carolina Panthers fanbase.
The Wide Receivers
I thought this was the most complete (which is not to say I thought it was perfect). However, the WR core has struggled for the Panthers this season (and I do not believe it can be blamed on Darnold.
Sam has had 8% of his passes dropped (most notably in the Giants game), which is a mark that will be the worst of the QBs career. And Darnold may have a reasonably high mark in his bad throw%, 18.1% is not excellent, but it would be his second-lowest career figure.
And while Darnold may not be great, his On target % is 77.2% which is a career-high, despite the poor offensive line performance.
To compare, Teddy Bridgewater saw only a 2.7% drop% and had a comparable target% of 78.6%.
Sam may not be great, but I think the Panthers need to stick with him for this season and next season. For one, they signed him to that fifth-year extension meaning his dead-cap hit would be nearly $19 million.
I also think that if the Panthers found a trade partner who would take Darnold, they would get practically nothing in terms of compensation, much like the aforementioned Teddy B. But my main reason for keeping Darnold would be because he simply has not had a fair shake.
His wide receiving core has not been adequate (Robby Anderson has dropped 12.2% of his targets, which is three times higher than the two previous seasons and SIX times higher than in 2018. He has not had CMC, and his offensive line has been horrible.
If I were the Panthers, I would keep him for this season and next and in the draft and free agency, see about improving the offensive line. If Darnold had even an average offensive line, you could fairly evaluate him. You need to improve the offensive line with or without Darnold: why not do it with the QB on your books for nearly $19 million.
Additionally, I am not blown away by anyone in this draft class who would serve as an upgrade from Sam. Why not wait until next year when there could potentially be a more sure-fire pick.
Whether or not you like Darnold and think he is your team’s future at the QB position, I still think it makes it more logical to hang onto him. And it certainly makes more sense to keep playing Darnold than it does to bring back Cam Newton.
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