I had a chance last week, as part of a project I am working on this summer, to once again evaluate two quarterbacks who had outstanding seasons in 2011: Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton. I had not carefully looked at their tape since January, and I always find it fascinating to revisit players, especially quarterbacks, with a fresh (and hopefully different) perspective.
With the ability to fine focus, I was more impressed now than I was during the season. I can say, without any qualification, that Stafford, who just finished his third NFL season and first in which he started 16 games, and Newton, the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year, are the best young quarterbacks in the league. Fittingly, both were No. 1 overall picks in their respective drafts, Stafford in 2009 and Newton in 2011.
It may seem ridiculously obvious, but in a league driven by the passing game, quarterbacks reach high-level status based on how they throw the ball from the pocket. I’ve written before about the attributes necessary to play the position consistently well in the NFL. Those traits are identifiable and measurable through extensive film study. There’s no question that different players possess these characteristics in varying and distinct degrees. But the relevant point is that elite play at the game’s most important position demands a tangible skill set that can be quantified.
It’s the reason that no one has ever “revolutionized” the position, and no one will. That discussion, which enters the discourse every year at some point, is always more idle noise than realistic evaluation. That kind of talk surrounded Newton last season, given his remarkable early success. In many ways, it was a shame, because it overlooked — and ultimately discounted — what made him so good so quickly.
Newton did not have a record-setting rookie season because he’s a great athlete. Certainly, his touchdown run against the Bucs late in the season was spectacular, and few quarterbacks have that kind of breathtaking running ability. But no one becomes a great quarterback in the NFL because of the way they run.
I watched every Newton snap in 2011, and the reality was he played exceptionally well from the pocket. He was poised and composed, decisive and accurate. He stood tall and delivered the ball in the eye of the storm. He made difficult throws into tight coverage. He did not run unless it was the last and only option or it was a designed play call. What was so extraordinary about Newton’s season was that he transitioned to the NFL in a manner that was unexpected and unforeseen based on his college résumé. He was primarily a run/option quarterback at Auburn. While the big arm and occasional NFL throw were there, Newton was not often asked to display the attributes necessary to thrive on Sundays.
Two early-season plays really stood out last fall, and previewed Newton’s exceptional season. His first NFL touchdown pass, 77 yards to Steve Smith on the opening Sunday, featured a change in protection against a blitz. The ability to recognize and then adjust before the snap is an increasingly necessary attribute to play at a high level in this league, and Newton demonstrated it in Week 1. Three weeks later against the Bears, on a 26-yard completion to Smith, Newton showed the kind of progression reading and pocket toughness that are two hallmarks of top quarterback play. The initial read was to his left, but it was taken away by the Bears coverage. With the pocket collapsing, Newton came backside to Smith on a dig route. It was as good as it gets. And that was his fourth NFL start.
While Newton’s consistently strong pocket play was not anticipated, Stafford has always been comfortable in the cradle. He came out of Georgia an elite arm talent, evident the moment you put on his college tape. He threw with velocity and could challenge the defense at all levels of the field. I viewed him as a better prospect coming out of college in 2009 than either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III this year.
Arm strength has always been a contentious issue. There are many who believe it’s the most overrated quality when evaluating quarterback play, that it can be compensated for with outstanding anticipation and precise ball location. There is some truth to that, and certainly not every great NFL quarterback has a strong arm, but more often than not that belief is fool’s gold.
Let me bring you back to 2009. As I was preparing for that year’s draft, I remember watching Stafford and then immediately putting in a tape of Mark Sanchez. The difference in the way they delivered the ball was unmistakable from film study. There were throws Stafford could make that Sanchez couldn’t, and more importantly, wouldn’t even attempt because he knew he couldn’t. That’s the element that is always overlooked by those who minimize arm strength: The confidence and willingness of quarterbacks like Stafford to pull the trigger on tight window throws that demand velocity. Those throws are often the difference between winning and losing, but few recognize that because there is no quantifiable means by which to evaluate throws that are not made by quarterbacks with lesser arm strength.
Go back to the second week of the 2011 season, against the Kansas City Chiefs. Stafford threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Tony Scheffler that few quarterbacks would have attempted. It began with his subconscious and intuitive belief that he could make the throw, and then it featured rare velocity and pinpoint accuracy. It was a snapshot of Stafford’s outstanding season, the kind of throw that distinguishes great NFL passers.
When you get a chance to see every throw quarterbacks make, and just as importantly, the ones they don’t make, you get a clearly defined picture of the difference. Stafford is only in the early stages of his career, but there’s no question he’s near the top of the charts when it comes to throwing ability. The more snaps he takes, and the more he learns, the better he will get.
Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton — two young quarterbacks with the attributes to be special passers in the NFL for years to come.