Did Cam Newton play in a “one read” passing offense at Auburn?

Trackemtigers asks whether Cam Newton played in a “one-read passing offense” at Auburn, something you keep hearing from the media. Most of the talking heads vaguely use this term, usually implying that Newton literally would look at one receiver and, if he was covered, instantly start running. This kind of confusion is understandable given that teaching quarterbacks where to throw the football both seems like a bit of an inscrutable black art — which takes years to master the often subconscious subtleties necessary to do well  — but also because there are simply many different ways to do it.

In the NFL, less running, more of this

Compounding this in Newton’s case is that almost all the attention on his offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s offense has been on the running game, while the passing game has received very little attention. This is not a surprise, given the dynamic and multifaceted run game Malzahn employs, and given that, especially with Cam, the run set up the pass. But it ignores the fact that Auburn led the nation in passing efficiency and threw for over 3,000 yards last season — we’re not talking about Paul Johnson’s flexbone here.

Indeed, Malzahn’s reputation as a high school coach was as an air-it-out guy, and in his first season at Tulsa in 2007, the Golden Hurricane were second in the country in passing yards with over 5,000, behind only pass-happy attacks from June Jones at Hawai’i and Mike Leach at Texas Tech. (They were also second in the nation in yards per attempt, behind only the Tebow-led Florida Gators.)

So Malzahn knows the pass, and Newton was obviously good at what he was asked to do. But what was that? I can only speculate on what specifics Cam was given, but I am familiar with Gus’s passing game and have a strong idea of how it was tailored to Cam Newton.

Gus, going back to Tulsa, uses progression reads, meaning his quarterbacks read the first receiver, to the second receiver, to the third receiver, and so on. That means that there’s no way Cam was given a “single read” — a single receiver to look at — or did Malzahn literally tell him to only look at one guy and to ignore everyone else? No to the first but, at least sometimes, yes to the second. This is because if there was one read it was not a single receiver, but a single defender.

For example, take the smash concept, a play that Gus has in his arsenal. The progression on the play is: corner route to hitch/underneath route, making it a two receiver progression (and a third if you have the runningback checking down over the middle). But you can also teach the play as a single receiver “key” read: Read the corner — if he stays with the hitch, throw the corner; if he drops for the corner, throw the hitch.

Thus in this case, it might not actually be inaccurate to say that Newton had only a “single read,” but it’s also a bit misleading. Indeed, many NFL quarterbacks only have a “single read” if this is the definition, though they might have some other read or key telling them which single read to focus on. But, while I think this “single read” was sometimes the case, I think more likely Gus used the progression read, giving Cam the typical suite of “reads”: one, two, three, throw-it-away/run.

Chris Petersen of Boise State once set forth his view of a quarterback’s development as follows:

  1. Strict progression. Tell him to read first receiver, second receiver, and then third receiver — and then run like hell if they aren’t open. In Petersen’s view, if they don’t know anything else they can know, by rote memory, who they are supposed to throw to. This doesn’t require them to have any advance knowledge of the defense and it is where every quarterback begins.
  2. Progression with coverage keys. The same progression concept as above except that the progression and sequence of receivers is determined by what the defense is doing. How many safeties are there? What kind of leverage are you getting from the cornerbacks? Is it a blitz? Is it man or zone? Once you’ve determined that, it’s one-two-three.
  3. Coverage reads. This is the advanced NFL stuff: Tom Brady sees the defense doing X, so he looks one way and then rifles it back to the receiver he always knew he was going to because he understood the coverage, he understood the technique the defense was playing, and he understood the theory of the play he was running. There are few, if any, college quarterbacks who ever do this kind of thing.

I think Petersen explained it well. Good college quarterbacks should be at level two: They should be able to come to the sideline after a mistake and explain why they threw it to a guy, and what they saw. They should be able to draw the pass play on the whiteboard but also describe the coverages and tell you why a play should get open, and they should be able to enjoy some freedom to determine their progression.This is also how Gus teaches it.

Note that not every play needs that kind of analysis — sometimes you just have a play-action pass where you want the safety to move so you can hit the deep post, and if not you have a deep crosser and a checkdown, but in general that’s the level of knowledge you want about the passing game. The great ones go on to the pros where they either learn the kind of complete symbiosis with passing game, scheme, technique, timing and coverage necessary to succeed; there, the difference is between knowing computer programming languages and the end of the Matrix where Neo becomes one with the Matrix itself. I’m not convinced that can be taught, but one and two certainly can.

I’m not sure Cam made it all the way to level two — I’m not sure he had to, and I know that when he got to Auburn from Blinn college he hadn’t quite gotten there. But he clearly understood level one, in that he knew where his receivers were and he was extremely efficient throughout the year. Had he stayed for another year I think he would have continued developing as a passer, but now he’ll have to make a more significant leap.

The upshot, however, is that this makes Cam simply like most other quarterback prospects in this year’s draft: He has more to learn before he’ll be a great NFL quarterback. That should not be a shock to anyone. Blaine Gabbert played in a pretty sophisticated offense (see this great interview with Dave Matter), but he wasn’t always perfect doing it, and I’m not sure how convinced anyone is that the other quarterback prospects — Mallett, Locker, etc — achieved “mastery” of the Petersen’s “level 2″ as I’ve described it above. Cam’s big advantage is his immense physical ability, and his disadvantage is the same as everyone else’s: He’s going to have to keep working at it to show he can improve and do it at an NFL level.

Below are some clips, courtesy of Draft Breakdown. You be the judge:

  • GFD

    Cam Newton played in a “no read” offense at Auburn. They just told him to run around like hell and it worked!

  • Anonymous

    Nuance is an element that does not lend itself well to sports culture.
    Unfortunately, we live in a world where false-dichotomies are the only way to examine this gs

    Can can either be a GREAT quarterback or a ONE TRICK PONY, any more substance than that (by scouts or ESPN) and our heads explode.

    The Malzahn-Hand offense (let alone many offenses) are ‘one read’ because you can pretty much figure out where everyone fits within the passing concept from what that one player does.

    The play-action, for instance, in their offense is premised off of one safety against Post-Dig
    Throw to the guy that safety didn’t jump.

  • JJ

    Tulsa Golden Eagles?

  • Anonymous

    He set it out (I paraphrased above) in the 2008 Nike Coach of the Year Clinic. I’ve added a link above, but see also:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1585187194/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=chrisbrownsfo-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1585187194

    I heard him talk about this another time to a group of coaches too, but you can find it in print there.

  • Anonymous

    Fixed.

  • Bret Moore

    Yeah cause he ran out all those 4th down conversions and handed them to Darvin and Kodi and etc etc. Ignorant.

  • Bret Moore

    Yeah cause he ran out all those 4th down conversions and handed them to Darvin and Kodi and etc etc. Ignorant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Acid-Reign/100001748237033 Acid Reign

    …..Those videos definitely show that Cam isn’t usually locked in on one receiver, or even one side of the field. He doesn’t always get to go through very many reads, mainly because the Georgia and Alabama brain-trusts had realized that the only way to defend him was to go all-out and get in his face.

    …..I guess the next question is: are those reads, or is he doing scripted look-offs? Wouldn’t surprise me to find that there’s a little of both going on.

  • Drofdarb23

    Excellent write up as always. Where did you get Chris Petersen’s 3-step view of a quarterback’s development?

  • Drofdarb23

    Thanks for the link. Is the majority of the information/text in those Nike Coach of the Year Clinic books coaching jargon? Trying to decide if I should order one of those books or if I’ll even be able to understand it.

  • Anonymous

    I’m likely a mope, but what are we supposed to discern from the draft breakdown clips?
    Were we supposed to evaluate his competency or deficiency based on this mashing of unrelated, non contextualized snaps?

  • Shakinthesouthland

    I tend to think of the single read as applying primarily to quick passing game, not all of the downfield patterns Malzahn likes to use.

    Still, if you watch the first 4-5 games of Auburn’s season, you can see that Gus didn’t give him anything complex. There was almost no downfield deep passing against Clemson. I believe he told him to look at one or two guys and take it himself. The fact that there was such a marked change in the passing attack in just a few weeks makes me believe that Malzahn is a hell of a QB coach.

  • Anonymous

    I completely agree. If you watch the Clemson and South Carolina games, Newton was clearly a force but Malzahn didn’t trust him yet. They couldn’t have beaten Oregon — to say nothing of Alabama or some of the other teams they beat — without Newton’s ability to be a real passer. That’s why I say that given another year I think Cam would be there, but he still was developing throughout the season. As you say, credit to Gus and Cam.

  • Anonymous

    It was the best I had access to. I didn’t have time to do a thorough breakdown of every pass play Cam had categorized by type of pass and by coverage. Most of the stuff on youtube is all highlights and closeups with music blaring. These guys put together all of Cam’s passes and some of his runs by game into a single youtube; I don’t find that useless.

    Now, the intent of this post was not to serve as sufficient data for drafting the guy. If you were going to draft him I would imagine you’d look at a lot more. But most of the people who read this article would have seen him play in the fall, so a brief and dirty refresher against top competition doesn’t strike me as useless. I also think the short clips should debunk the notion that Cam was just some kind of mindless scrambler back there, as the talking heads would leave you to believe.

    If you’d like to do the dirty work of putting together all of Newton’s pass plays and providing a thorough, read by read and play by play analysis, feel free. I’ll give you a link.

  • Anonymous

    I think they are decent. They are just a collection of clinic talks so they are what they are — some speakers are better than others, some are more organized than others, and some have better content than others. Because it’s a clinic talk too most of it either tends to be very basic or you only get a piece of what is really going on, but I still tend to find them useful; can always pick up one or two things.

    I actually think they are a better introduction for people trying to learn more about the game than some other full length books because they are simply shorter and cover a wider range of topics; everyone can usually find at least one thing that interests them, and they tend to cover the “hot topics” for a given offseason.

  • RedmondLonghorn

    This is the exact same criticism, to the word, that people were lobbing in Vince Young’s direction before he was drafted. In Young’s case, there were also pretty legitimate criticisms of his odd passing mechanics, but the implication that Young operated in a primitive passing offense, or was only able to operate the offense at a primitive level, was identical.

    I will stop short of calling it a racial bias (Warren Moon seems to be handling that hot potato), but it does seem to be a bias against QBs who are physical freaks and operate in run-first offenses.

  • Gabe

    Alabama had a very very good defense. Cam’s future is up in the air, but it sure was fun to see what Malzahn could do with a top notch athlete. The Florida(EDSBS) guys were all talking about how Cam couldn’t hit the side of a barn when he was in Gainesville. Something about how Malzahn teaches these guys is a little different.

    I don’t want to insult Chris Todd, but here is a understatement “I doubt Chris Todd would have set the Auburn pass TD record without Gus Malzahn”

  • Batsandgats

    Yes made Chris Todd into a competent qb, a guy that was mediocre at JUCO and shouldve never been starting d1 fbs. At Tulsa, Paul Smith was passing for 2,000 yards and like 18 touchdowns, Gus comes in and all of a sudden he throws for 46 tds and 5 thousand yards? Then the backup David Johnson throws for 4,000 and around 46 tds as well. Practice squad guys. So yeah, Newton might not be a one read and run qb, but he is a system qb, just like Tebow. Gus had wanted to add more qb running for years but never had the qb to do it. Now he did. Based on the scheme it is hard to predict how cam will do as a qb in the NFL. No doubt he is a great athlete but thats all I can predict for now.

  • DL

    I got hear chan gailey speak at a glazier clinic in atlanta. he stated that Troy Aikman’s read was this: if Michael Irvin was one on one, the chuck it to him, other wise it was a simple hi lo read to the other side.

  • Mr.Murder

    If you are not in six man protection at least, you shouldn’t get past the hi-low read to one side of things or the single defender matchup. You will not get time for anything else with the speed rush of the SEC.

  • Kazzy

    Do you think Petersen’s pet QB has approached the third level? It seems Kellen Moore is the only college quarterback who already has a firm grasp on level two, and is ready to progress onto level three.

  • Adam H

    Every QB is a system QB.

  • Td

    i was partnered at the Top Gun camp with Buddy Geis who coached QB’s and WR’s for years for Chan Gailey including coaching Troy Aikman with the Cowboys. We had many lenghty conversations during the week but yes this is pretty much true. More than it being as simple as “if Irvin was 1 on 1″ it was based on 1 vs 2 high coverage. Pretty Much what Buddy said was “if we see we have one Safety working the Middle of the field we throw whatever sideline routes we had called and said they repped this particular routes so much they could be thrown without looking as the QB would throw to exact spots on instant cue of 1 high safety.

    Buddy relied very heavy on the golden rule of throwing opposite the rotation of a 2 high to a 1 high look on snap. If the right safety fell down into undercoverage the qb was to deliver the ball opposite (left) and there was ALWAYS an open WR.

    Basically they would thrown comebacks/outs/hitch/Curls til the defense moved to 2 high looks at which point they would attack the deep hole with timing throws that had to be on time and on ropes. After that the defense had to gamble and try to fool the QB but if you focused on the Safeties it was all over.

  • Td

    i was partnered at the Top Gun camp with Buddy Geis who coached QB’s and WR’s for years for Chan Gailey including coaching Troy Aikman with the Cowboys. We had many lenghty conversations during the week but yes this is pretty much true. More than it being as simple as “if Irvin was 1 on 1″ it was based on 1 vs 2 high coverage. Pretty Much what Buddy said was “if we see we have one Safety working the Middle of the field we throw whatever sideline routes we had called and said they repped this particular routes so much they could be thrown without looking as the QB would throw to exact spots on instant cue of 1 high safety.

    Buddy relied very heavy on the golden rule of throwing opposite the rotation of a 2 high to a 1 high look on snap. If the right safety fell down into undercoverage the qb was to deliver the ball opposite (left) and there was ALWAYS an open WR.

    Basically they would thrown comebacks/outs/hitch/Curls til the defense moved to 2 high looks at which point they would attack the deep hole with timing throws that had to be on time and on ropes. After that the defense had to gamble and try to fool the QB but if you focused on the Safeties it was all over.

  • Td

    i was partnered at the Top Gun camp with Buddy Geis who coached QB’s and WR’s for years for Chan Gailey including coaching Troy Aikman with the Cowboys. We had many lenghty conversations during the week but yes this is pretty much true. More than it being as simple as “if Irvin was 1 on 1″ it was based on 1 vs 2 high coverage. Pretty Much what Buddy said was “if we see we have one Safety working the Middle of the field we throw whatever sideline routes we had called and said they repped this particular routes so much they could be thrown without looking as the QB would throw to exact spots on instant cue of 1 high safety.

    Buddy relied very heavy on the golden rule of throwing opposite the rotation of a 2 high to a 1 high look on snap. If the right safety fell down into undercoverage the qb was to deliver the ball opposite (left) and there was ALWAYS an open WR.

    Basically they would thrown comebacks/outs/hitch/Curls til the defense moved to 2 high looks at which point they would attack the deep hole with timing throws that had to be on time and on ropes. After that the defense had to gamble and try to fool the QB but if you focused on the Safeties it was all over.

  • Td

    i was partnered at the Top Gun camp with Buddy Geis who coached QB’s and WR’s for years for Chan Gailey including coaching Troy Aikman with the Cowboys. We had many lenghty conversations during the week but yes this is pretty much true. More than it being as simple as “if Irvin was 1 on 1″ it was based on 1 vs 2 high coverage. Pretty Much what Buddy said was “if we see we have one Safety working the Middle of the field we throw whatever sideline routes we had called and said they repped this particular routes so much they could be thrown without looking as the QB would throw to exact spots on instant cue of 1 high safety.

    Buddy relied very heavy on the golden rule of throwing opposite the rotation of a 2 high to a 1 high look on snap. If the right safety fell down into undercoverage the qb was to deliver the ball opposite (left) and there was ALWAYS an open WR.

    Basically they would thrown comebacks/outs/hitch/Curls til the defense moved to 2 high looks at which point they would attack the deep hole with timing throws that had to be on time and on ropes. After that the defense had to gamble and try to fool the QB but if you focused on the Safeties it was all over.

  • Td

    i was partnered at the Top Gun camp with Buddy Geis who coached QB’s and WR’s for years for Chan Gailey including coaching Troy Aikman with the Cowboys. We had many lenghty conversations during the week but yes this is pretty much true. More than it being as simple as “if Irvin was 1 on 1″ it was based on 1 vs 2 high coverage. Pretty Much what Buddy said was “if we see we have one Safety working the Middle of the field we throw whatever sideline routes we had called and said they repped this particular routes so much they could be thrown without looking as the QB would throw to exact spots on instant cue of 1 high safety.

    Buddy relied very heavy on the golden rule of throwing opposite the rotation of a 2 high to a 1 high look on snap. If the right safety fell down into undercoverage the qb was to deliver the ball opposite (left) and there was ALWAYS an open WR.

    Basically they would thrown comebacks/outs/hitch/Curls til the defense moved to 2 high looks at which point they would attack the deep hole with timing throws that had to be on time and on ropes. After that the defense had to gamble and try to fool the QB but if you focused on the Safeties it was all over.

  • Chrismattura2006

    This is the 1st time I viewed your site. Excellent. I am a former NFL Assistant Coach, so I have some insight. The world of the QB in the NFL as opposed to college ball is like comparing Babe Ruth
    to Dave Kingman. One thing you failed to mention is the different speed that the NFL is played at.
    I don’t mean 4o times. Things happen so much faster with protection calls, stems and disguises.
    Like anything, if you are committed to something, you will succeed. The probelm with Cam Newton
    is, the defense is now going to be paid to defend him.

  • Maxwell Teller

    Thanks for letting everyone know you have no idea what you are talking about right out of the gate. Now we know to dismiss any and all comments you make in the future as wrong without having to waste any time reading them. Well done Sir.