Cam Newton has led the Carolina Panthers to an unlikely 12-0 record with a dazzling combination of running and passing, capped by Sunday’s wild 41-38 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Two Times reporters tackle the question: Does Cam Newton deserve the prize?
It almost seems as if Cam Newton has a checklist of things he needs to accomplish this season to finally be taken seriously as a quarterback. Two division titles did not win everyone over, and he entered this season with a huge new contract and plenty of people still writing him off as too flashy, too likely to run, and not the type of leader a team needs to win. He was essentially held up as the anti-Tom Brady.
With four games to go, it is hard to see how anyone could still be thinking those things about Newton. Not only is he at the helm of the game’s only undefeated team, but he seems to find a new way to win every week. He has won close games and blowouts, he has done the bulk of the damage with his arm, but he has had a knack to know when to tuck the ball and run. And he has been the emotional focal point of the team, with players on both sides of the ball regularly citing him for keeping the team motivated. He has been the very definition of Most Valuable Player.
Newton will very likely never be the type of quarterback who completes 65 percent of his passes over the course of a season, and he still falls short of Brady in terms of yardage and touchdown passes, but in Sunday’s wild shootout with the New Orleans Saints, Newton was at his best, throwing five touchdown passes while outdueling the future Hall of Famer Drew Brees on his home field.
The most important sequence of the game, in terms of demonstrating Newton’s newfound maturity, was in the third quarter, when he made the mistake of slowing up as he was about to cross the goal line on a run. He paid for his hubris with a huge helmet-to-helmet hit from Michael Mauti that threw him out of bounds before he could score. It was the type of play that Newton’s critics have loved to attack throughout his career. But the 2015 version of Newton was not shaken, and a few plays later he hit Ted Ginn Jr. with a 13-yard touchdown pass.
Newton did not try to hide from the bad decision that resulted in a big hit, telling reporters after the game, “I deserved it.”
While much has been made about Brady playing a few games without Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, Newton does not seem to be getting the same credit for playing the entire season without Kelvin Benjamin, his best wide receiver. Beyond Greg Olsen, Newton has had to rely on an underwhelming group of receivers like Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery, but that has not stopped him from throwing a career-high 25 touchdown passes.
Newton has done all of this without abandoning the personality that seemed to rub so many people the wrong way. He is still dancing and smiling and celebrating with his teammates after big plays. And his attitude has been contagious.
It is very likely not a coincidence that Newton’s coach and advocate, Ron Rivera, played for the 1985 Chicago Bears, where he saw first-hand how Jim McMahon was able to keep that team loose with his outlandish behavior. The toughest team in football was dancing the “Super Bowl Shuffle” and laughing all the way to one of the most dominant seasons in N.F.L. history.
Newton has already done the Dab and the Twist, and on Sunday Mike Tolbert, the team’s massive fullback, tried out “the Carlton” after a touchdown catch. But the team may need Rivera to teach them his old team’s moves if things keep going this well. And the curmudgeons of the N.F.L. who have loved to hate Newton, may need to get ready for him to receive the game’s highest honor, because thus far he has earned it.
Brady vs. Newton, Newton vs. Brady. The glamorous pride of New England against the fleet-footed leader of Carolina. The man who defied the commissioner against the man seemingly reinventing his position.
The M.V.P. race seems to be down to two quarterbacks, whose teams, one perfect and one nearly so, are touted to be headed for a collision in Super Bowl 50.
As the Panthers have improved to 12-0, Newton seems to have seized the lead in the M.V.P. race. When a team is perfect, lots of praise naturally falls on the quarterback, and you hear many variants on the phrase “he just wins.”
It is true the Panthers are winning. But the lion’s share of the credit actually must go to their defense. The Panthers are just 15th in the league in yards per play and 11th in net yards per pass attempt. But their stingy defense is second in both categories.
In the N.F.L., offenses fundamentally move through the air. And the best way to evaluate a quarterback’s passing is the statistic yards per attempt, adjusted for touchdowns and interceptions. At 7.6 adjusted yards per attempt, Newton is only 12th in the league, behind, among others, the rookie Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, and, gulp, T.J. Yates, who cameoed for the Texans. Can Newton be the league M.V.P. when he may not be a top 10 quarterback?
Newton’s backers point to his running, and he does deserve credit for the 476 yards he has gained, tops among quarterbacks this year (Brady has 45). But that is still only 40 yards a game. Great rushing quarterbacks like Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham and, yes, Tim Tebow averaged 50 or 60 in their best seasons.
Brady led the league in adjusted yards per passing attempt twice: in 2007 (9.4) and 2010 (9.0). Those were also the two years he won the M.V.P. award. After two so-so seasons, he has roared back this year to post an 8.4, significantly better than Newton.
In the traditional counting stats, Brady leads the league with 3,912 yards passing and 31 touchdowns. He has only six interceptions to Newton’s 10.
It is true that Brady’s Patriots have two losses, but one was to an excellent Broncos team on the road in overtime. Sunday’s bizarre loss to the Eagles was essentially because of fluke plays: three of Philadelphia’s touchdowns came on a blocked punt, a punt return and a 99-yard interception return. And the Patriots still nearly won.
It feels churlish to critique a perfect season, but the Panthers have won five of their games by 7 points or less, and it is not hard to see them being, say, 9-3 with a few different bounces.
Brady’s suspension for involvement in the deflation of footballs, and its eventual reversal, dominated the off-season news. That narrative, and the sense that Brady considers himself a wronged man on a mission, will also be compelling for voters.
But wait. Does Brady’s 8.4 adjusted yards per pass sound good? It actually ranks only sixth in the league.
At the top of the table at 9.2 is a player who has put up tremendous numbers: Carson Palmer. It is the Cardinals’ offense that may be the league’s best, ranking first in points scored and net yards per passing attempt, and second in yards per play.
Palmer has 219 fewer yards than Brady and two fewer touchdowns, but he has 88 fewer passing attempts. And because the Cardinals started the season 4-2, they have been overlooked in all the commotion over several teams’ perfect starts.
Palmer and the Cardinals are 10-2 and have four games to go, all against playoff contenders, the Vikings, the Eagles, the Packers and the Seahawks. If they get through those games with more Palmer fireworks, and especially if the Panthers don’t run the table, Palmer would have a compelling case for the award. VICTOR MATHER