Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton won't win the NFL's Most Valuable Player award, but he deserves it more than anyone else.
The award's meaning has been muddled over the years, and voters have started to simply hand the MVP to the quarterback on the league's best team instead of considering players' value to their teams. In the truest sense of "most valuable," though, Newton is by far the most worthy of being named the league's MVP.
Carolina may not even have a shot at making the playoffs, but it would be a historically bad team if it weren't for Newton's stellar performance. Newton is more valuable than any other player in the league because he improves his team more than any other individual.
Carolina has already won as many games midway through the season as it did all year in 2010, but the difference goes even further than wins. All but two of the Panthers' seven losses this year have been within a margin of one touchdown. In 2010, all but two of the Panthers' 14 losses were by a margin of 10 or more points.
In his second game in the NFL, Newton matched Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers blow for blow in a bid to upset the Super Bowl champions. Two weeks later, the Panthers came within five points of beating the Chicago Bears, and the following week the Panthers lost to the New Orleans Saints by only a field goal.
The Panthers' defense can't take any credit for the team's newfound ability to fight NFC title contenders tooth-and-nail; Carolina has already allowed five separate opponents to score over 30 points this year and is allowing even more yards per pass attempt and yards per rush attempt than it did in 2010. The resurgence of the Panthers' competitiveness stems from the offense, and therefore stems from Newton.
The Panthers' offense has already scored more touchdowns this year than it did all of last season. A large part of their increase in scoring stems from Newton's ability to run the zone read. The Panthers' best receiver is Steve Smith, listed as 5 foot 9 on the NFL's official website. Smith is talented, but he is negated more easily in goal-line situations where height is the most crucial trait in a receiver.
Smith's height disadvantage allows defenses to run-blitz the Panthers without having to worry about a passing threat. As a result of Newton's rare physical ability to outrun an NFL defensive end from the quarterback position, the Panthers are able to use the zone read to negate the disadvantage of not being able to pass near the goal line. With Newton in the backfield, he can run a zone read, either keeping the football or handing it off to a running back. Because the Panthers could be running the ball to either side of the field, defenses are stretched horizontally, creating more space for either runner.
The need to defend against Newton's running abilities puts measurable pressure on opposing defenses. Panthers running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are good players, but Newton's presence makes them even better. The attention defenses focus on keeping Newton from running the ball opens up holes for Stewart and Williams, both of whose yards-per-carry averages have increased from last year. Newton's impact in the running game is the reason the Panthers' offense has already scored 10 rushing touchdowns this year in comparison to the seven it scored all year in 2010.
Newton provides a boost to the running game, but his passing ability is where he really improves the Panthers. Carolina's quarterbacks threw nine touchdowns and 21 interceptions in 2010. This season Newton has thrown 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Newton's touchdown-to-interception ratio has room for improvement but is a massive upgrade from the Panthers' performance at the quarterback position last year. Most impressive is Newton's lack of a supporting cast.
Aside from Smith, Newton's best receiving options are tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. Olsen hasn't had over 700 receiving yards in any season of his career, and Shockey hasn't done so since 2005. Both players are solid blockers, but neither is a weapon in the passing game like San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who has had over 700 receiving yards every year since 2004.
Gates is a tight end whose quarterbacks benefit from his presence. Newton is a quarterback whose tight ends are benefiting from his presence -- Olsen is averaging more yards per reception than he has in his entire career, and Shockey is averaging more yards per reception than he has since 2005.
A quarterback's role in his team's success is often overstated. In Newton's case, his role in the team's success cannot be emphasized enough. From a schematic standpoint, Newton's influence on the Panthers' offense is huge. His size and speed force defenses to play zone coverage against the Panthers, because if the defensive backs are in man coverage their backs will be to Newton and they won't be able to see when he tucks the ball and starts running. By the time they know Newton is running with the ball, he will have already gained several yards.
Playing zone coverage against the Panthers doesn't guarantee a defense the ability to slow Newton down. Instead, it plays to Newton's greatest strength as a passer. Newton has already demonstrated the ability to make nearly any type of NFL throw, but he is best at lobbing the ball over a defender and hitting his receiver perfectly in stride in between zones. Newton can kill a defense with either his legs or his arm. When playing against the Panthers, defensive coordinators must pick their poison.
So far the only team to completely shut Newton down has been the Tennessee Titans, who beat the Panthers 30-3. Titans' defensive coordinator Jerry Gray devised a scheme that worked to perfection against the Panthers. On most plays, Gray had only three defensive linemen rush Newton, and the three of them still managed to get through Carolina's offensive line and force Newton to run out of the pocket.
When Newton left the pocket, Gray had a defensive player whose sole assignment was to play the "spy" role, following the quarterback wherever he ran. Assigning a player to spy the quarterback normally sacrifices a player in pass coverage. The Titans' defensive line's ability to get through Carolina's offensive with a three-man rush allowed Tennessee to get pressure, put a spy on Newton and still have seven players in coverage. With only five eligible receivers on the field, the Panthers' receivers were blanketed, and Newton had very little room to run because of the defensive player assigned to spy him.
Of course, few teams have a good enough defensive line to generate a consistent pass rush with only three defensive linemen. Newton is a force to be reckoned with, and instantly makes the Panthers dangerous on every offensive play of the game. Although the Titans executed their game plan to perfection against Newton, he still made one play that demonstrated his importance to the team.
With 28 seconds remaining in the first half, Newton escaped containment on second down from Carolina's 42-yard line and dodged Titans defenders for a 26-yard gain, putting the Panthers in field goal range. Although kicker Olindo Mare missed the field goal, Newton's run demonstrated his game-changing ability. In a matter of just one play, he took the Panthers from running out the clock to end the half, to being in position to score points.
Such a play is merely an example of the effect Newton has on a team. With Newton, the Panthers are a team that has gone toe-to-toe with playoff-caliber teams despite a mediocre special teams unit and a hemorrhaging defense. Without Newton, the Panthers would not have been remotely competitive in any games. That's value.