Did Cam Newton flunk the Jon Gruden test?

Setting aside whether there is (or should be) a Jon Gruden test, many on the interwebs have pointed to this video and decided Newton can’t make it:

The argument is that Newton just passes on the long verbiage call and, in not answering, fails the question. Now, it’s clear that Newton’s offense in college was not as complicated as what the pros do, I think the conclusion that Cam is automatically unfit is unfair. He didn’t forget his own plays; he says they did not have it in his offense because everything had to be done from the no-huddle. He says “36” might be the play name, and they call 36 and up and go. (For what it’s worth, in his book Finding the Winning Edge, put out in 1997, Bill Walsh said the future of football was in no-huddle offenses where the plays were called with single words.)

In the full segment, Cam diagrams a couple of plays and a couple of things were clear to me: (a) he’s a freak athlete, (b) he actually internalized his coaching quite well, as he remembered all the coaching points and axioms from Malzahn (and Gruden said he retained everything in their meeting quite well), and (c) he really does have a long way to go in terms of mastering a complicated NFL system. The upshot is that, while I like Cam’s potential, drafting him number one is risky. But he’s not incapable of mastering an NFL system.

But a final thought. Gruden — rightly, I think — emphasizes to Newton that he is going to have to prepare himself for complicated NFL playbooks and verbiage, because he will be a new employee and that’s what they do. Yet it’s not clear to me that all that verbiage goes to good use; I’m curious if Gruden, if he goes back into coaching, will choose to deluge kids with those insane playcalls or will instead do as Walsh predicted and as Malzahn does, and find a simpler way of doing business. As Cam says in the clip, “simple equals fast,” and as Holgorsen likes to remind his team, “if you’re thinking, you’re not playing.”

  • Dan

    Having called plays in amateur football I think it’s insane to call a long play verbally and then have a qb repeat it. Turn to the person next to you and say a long nonsensical sentence and have them repeat it back to you word for word. That is hard for anyone to do regardless of intelligence.

    We only have 25 secs and I don’t want to spend 15-20 of those on a play call. You have a wrist band with the plays on it with numbers next to them. You send or signal in the number and the player reads the full play from his band. To say it and repeat it is crazy. I think its especially crazy in the NFL where the QB still needs time to call the protection and/or audibles even with the 40 secs.

    Also, if you always wait until there are 3 secs left on the clock then you don’t have time for hard counts and the defense gets a good get off (they know you are going to snap it before zero).

  • jbramley

    It seems to me that if you were to use single word play names, then you’d end up with N things to mentally map (where N is the number of plays you have). Whereas if you used more complicated play calling, in which you called out the formation, blocking scheme, route running, motions, etc., then you’d have F+B+R+M+E <= N things to mentally map. As long as each portion of the play call has distinct naming schemes (animals, fruits, colors, numbers, cities, whatever…), then it seems to me that you would reduce the mental load on the athletes so that they would be playing and not thinking (and who doesn't want to hear a quarterback call out "Chartreuse kiwi Reykjavik 404"?)

  • Dan

    Also, let me say if you draft Newton and never run him you might as well not draft him. The reason teams score so many points in college football is the threat of the qb run on any given play. Put him in shot gun and go 4 or 5 wides and make LB’s cover 4.3 NFL receivers, they won’t be able to go Nickel and Dime against that monster because he will run them over. You saw what happened in the Super Bowl when Jennings got on a LB in the slot. He will “out gap” every conventional NFL defense.

    Passing greats like Montana, Young and Elway (when he was young) moved the chains many times on 3rd downs by running for firsts. Manning, Brady and Marino are greats for sure, but a lot of drives end for them because they can’t pick up 5 – 10 yards running from the pocket when 8 guys drop.

    If you are too worried that he will get hurt, then draft 2 running qb’s and don’t pay them so much or pad them up more. Don’t put him in the tiny shoulder pads and make him wear leg pads and knee braces. People in the NFL need to think outside the box sometimes.

  • Shakinthesouthland

    I for one hope Carolina does not draft him. Freak athletic talent yes, but I don’t think its a good call to draft someone without more experience. I’d rather have a guy who started 3 years in college. I guess I follow the Bill Parcells rules there.

    Not surprising to me that Walsh said it would have to simplify, because the old WCO he ran was a very verbose system.

  • Tom

    I wonder what Bill Walsh would say about Chip Kelly’s visual play calling system. I think it’s brilliant.

  • Chris Hill

    Thank God somebody tracked down Shaun King and got his take on the whole thing.

  • Jericson

    The thing about the NFL playcalling is NFL teams do not run specific offenses; they run plays. Chris, you’ve written about it before. NFL teams do not do anything revolutionary in terms of plays, but they will run, say three-verticals, from just about every personnel grouping and formation they can. On any given play call, A LOT has to be communicated. Personnel, formation, shifts, motion, backfield action, blocking scheme/protection, checks, snap count. I’m sure there is more that I have not thought of. All the verbiage might seem like a lot to say, but the benefit comes from the ability to be multiple. Take one of the most basic runs: Inside Zone. This play can be run from lots of different personnel groupings, from lots of different formations, and using a lot of different backfield actions. It would be ridiculous to try to come up with a new name for every single combination, so instead, it makes more sense to compartmentalize the call at the expense of more verbiage.

  • Kyle

    No one is going to draft newton as a running QB. A first round QB costs way too much money and the risk of injury is way too big to consistently run him. Look at how long running backs last in the league. You would be kidding yourself if you thought you could simply pay a first round draft pick less just because you wanted two qb’s. If cam newton gets hurt then thats a lot of money sitting on the sidelines.

    I don’t think its necessarily the fact that NFL coordinators don’t think outside the box, its the fact that everyone is afraid to break the status quo, and that they think running out of the gun is soft because there’s no TE or FB.

  • Anonymous

    I think there’s a lot of truth to that. College guys and high school guys have lots of time and other constraints, and it makes more sense to have a cohesive offensive system that gives you counters and lets you focus on teaching. In the pros, if a guy can’t learn the playbook you fire him and hire someone who can. In college or high school it’s the guy who is in school and you get fired. That’s oversimplifying things, but I think the incentives are different.

    I do think some of the explanation for the long playcalls is just path dependence. Are there really THAT many formations in the NFL? I mean yes…. but no. Lots of variations but only so many base sets. Same with plays. Hundreds of plays but there are really a finite number of concepts. Kurt Warner talked about how the Rams in their heyday under Martz, despite having tons of plays, really just had 5-8 base concepts they took into every game they wanted to hit.

  • Anonymous

    I think this is right, but you do want the guy to have the capacity to throw the ball and read the D — I mean that’s the whole game there in the NFL. I look at it kind of like young Michael Jordan versus older Michael Jordan: In his early days he was an incredible athlete who could jump over everyone and athletically make plays, and then if they took away the drive he could hit a few jumpers and threes when he needed to. Later in his career he wasn’t out there trying to jump over everyone (though he still was a freak athlete) but instead had all those crafty old man tricks, like his unstoppable fadeaway jumper. I think an athletic quarterback is like that: early on the legs bail them out a lot, but to have a long term career they need the skills to hit their unstoppable fadeaway (all the throws).

  • Anonymous

    I hear you and I don’t disagree. If you invented a playcalling system where all eleven players had their individual assignment, and every playcall had 11 parts (not counting shifts and motions) that told them individually what to do, it wouldn’t be THAT difficult for those players, but think about it: is that what we want? Yes, we’d get lots of variability (say if you had 20 things each player could do, wouldn’t the number of variations you’d have be 11 to the 20th power (tell me I did that right)?). But I think one of Malzahn’s points is that you don’t need 11 to the 20th power of plays; maybe just 20 is enough, and if we can communicate that quickly and get up and go. And, as Gruden points out, while the NFL terminology might be plug-and-play for the slot receiver or fullback, the quarterback has to know all of it.

  • Jericson

    It seems that we both agree that at the core, NFL teams don’t run a ton of different BASE formations or BASE concepts, but the seemingly limitless number of variations and ways of packaging things together is what makes it so complicated. Are you arguing that they might be making it more intricate than they really need to?

  • LD

    I think Don Coryell is the elephant in this discussion. He revolutionized the passing game, not by making it more intricate, but by simplifying the playcalling into an easy-to-learn 3 digit passing system that emphasized timing and spacing. Sure, it helped to have Fouts throwing the Winslow, but it worked when it was Jim Hart throwing to Jackie Smith. Without Coryell, one can only imagine what the career arcs of Walsh and Martz … which is to say, the NFL … would look like.

  • Tim

    I know what Walsh said but his coaching experience when he wrote that book was pre salary cap. I wonder what he would have said after his 3 seasons as GM. The NFL is plug and play league now. You don’t have a few years to get all your guys accustomed to your system. Your starting X receiver may in week for may have just gotten to the team 2 says ago. He may not know what “ping pong” means yet but he sure as hell understands X shallow. In the modern NFL huddle everything has to be spelled out.

  • Dan

    I was imaging more of a a big blocking full back with hands in the backfield with a big running QB in a pass first offense. That’s if you chose to draft Newton early, all I am saying is tailor your offense to your talent and don’t shove a round peg in a square hole.

    By having a 4 receiver set you get all kinds of match up problems against base 4-3 or 3-4 personnel. So you pass 70% (dink and dunks mostly) of the time and you only run enough to keep them honest or every time they go nickel.

    You always have the option of the old fashion 2 back iso play with a full back leading, but now with the qb carrying and another wr outside you have taken a man from the box giving you the advantage.

    I think with a big player they have just as much chance get hurt standing still on a pocket hit as they do running the football and unless your offense is stacked at receiver and rb the duel threat qb puts more points on the board.

    If its me and I am set on a pocket style offense and won’t change then I draft Mallet in the 2nd and grab someone like that LSU cornerback (Patterson?)early. I think if you draft Newton to be strictly a pocket guy you are going to be disappointed.

  • CoachH

    Flip Right Double X Jet 36 Counter Naked Waggle at 7 X Quarter. . . say that 10 times fast

  • It’s actually 20 to the 11th power. Each player has 20 different things he could do. 2 players can do 400 things, and so forth. Don’t let that distract you from the best analysis of the Gruden-Newton video I’ve ever seen.

  • Dan Gonzalez

    Just saw the piece in its entirety last night. My concerns were not with the play call itself, but with him on the board. Honestly – my initial reaction was that he was drawing way too slow, and comments like “this is probably the strong safety” — are you kidding? He better know who it was – especially since they already played them! Also, i didn’t like his ball placement on the field – having guys stretching out on hitches, and his placement on the curls, or 22/23 Z IN…great arm, but the first pick in the draft ought to be able to put the ball wherever he wants it, dont’t you think?

  • DT

    Great kid…fantastic athlete. I can’t wait to see him shine on Sundays!

  • Chidesta

    I also got the same impression as D. Gonzalez when watching the entire episode. I think the verbiage, for Cam, will come all that part of the episode did was to highlight the disparity with Gruden’s love of long verbiage and the “college” coaches not using it in college and having a simpler system for basically calling the same plays. I think the greater issue is the perception that Newton came out of a “one-read” offense, I wanted to see him say something to prove that he had to read a coverage or at least go from “one to two to three” on some sort of progression, but in the examples he gave of who we was looking only helped to .

    I was initially glad to see him describe their post/wheel route concept, but i was disappointed to see he was going to go post pre-snap and his only job was to look off the free safety, there is much more to that concept than just that. I just felt bad for him, cause I really like what Auburn does and I personally like Cam, I just think he came off looking unprepared and that hurts both him and Auburn. I don’t know, I just didn’t like it and I know they probably edit out allot from the actual meeting, but you contrast his answers with that of Andy Dalton and it’s a drastic difference. With Dalton the second Gruden started running through a play, Dalton knew the situation and his reads and everything. Now for me this is more a product of Newton being a one year starter and a junior and Dalton being 4 year start and a senior than of talent and capability. It may just take Newton more time in the pros to figure some of this stuff out.

    Also I think these Gruden QB camps have sparked some interesting issues between the college game and pro game. Namely, the unmistakeable distain that pro coaches have for everything and anything ‘college’. From the lack of verbiage in college compared to the pros, to the ‘college’ QB not having taken a snap from center, to the pre-game antics and celebrations and traditions of college. I came away thinking all the inovation and creativity is coming out of college, cause the pro coaches aren’t willing to change and adapt and come up with anything new. I mean the west coast offense is now ‘old-school’ football and as much as I like Gruden, he hasn’t adapted his scheme like some of his proteges (Shaun Payton & Mike McCarthy).

  • 999999999

    i sometimes who articles like this are suppose to benefit…………….