Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are having outstanding rookie seasons. Newton has been setting records since the beginning of the season, while Dalton has helped make Cincinnati the NFL’s most surprising playoff contender. With the season 11 weeks old, many fans are thinking about who will wind up winning some of the NFL’s main individual awards. Aaron Rodgers has just about locked up the AP MVP award and should probably grab the AP Offensive Player of the Year Award, too. The AP Defensive Rookie of the Year will almost certainly be Von Miller, also known as the “other” reason the Denver Broncos have won five of their last six games. But what about the Offensive Rookie of the Year award?
Realistically, either Dalton or Newton will win the award. DeMarco Murray and A.J. Green are having great seasons for a rookie running back and wide receiver, respectively, but the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award is as much about position as performance.
From 1967 to 1983, the award went to a running back in all but three seasons. In 1968, Terry Cole led all rookie running backs with only 418 yards, so the award went to the top rookie receiver that season, Earl McCullouch. In 1970, the top rookie running back was Dallas’ Duane Thomas, but he had been less impressive than the Cowboys’ 1969 offensive rookie of the year, Calvin Hill. The top receiver, Ron Shanklin, was unspectacular, so the award actually went to Buffalo quarterback Dennis Shaw. Shaw had a an ugly 3-8-1 record, but all of his wins were 4th quarter comebacks. He also finished 6th in the league in passing yards. In 1976, wide receiver Sammy White had a monster year for the Vikings while no rookie running back stood out.
In fact, from the inception of the award in 1967 until 2003, Shaw was the only quarterback to win the award. But since then, Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young, Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford have taken the award in every even year starting in ’04. In 2005, Kyle Orton was the only rookie QB with at least 200 attempts; while his 10-5 record was nice, his individual statistics were terrible, and Cadillac Williams took home the award. In 2007, Adrian Peterson was an obvious selection, and it probably didn’t hurt that Trent Edwards was his top competition at quarterback. In 2009, Percy Harvin won the award on the basis of his receiving and returner skills, while Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman were each busy throwing seven to eight more interceptions than touchdowns and completing fewer than 55% of their passes.
Passing yards: Newton: 3,093; Dalton: 2,509. Edge Newton, but passing yards is not a good way to grade a quarterback.
Yards per attempt: Newton: 7.9; Dalton: 6.9. Edge Newton, and it’s a significant one. A full yard per attempt better places Newton 8th in the league and Dalton 20th in that category.
Sacks: Newton: 26; Dalton: 16. Edge Dalton, but sack rate is much more relevant.
Sack rate: This one is a little tricky. On the surface, Newton is at 6.2% and Dalton 4.2%. But Jason Lisk has argued that a quarterback rush attempt is a sack avoided. The argument is that when a pocket passer faces pressure, he will throw the ball away or check down to a back, while the running quarterback will scramble and rush for additional yardage. If you penalize the running quarterback for those scrambles where he fails to get back to the line of scrimmage, you should credit him for those sacks avoided when he gets past the line of scrimmage. If you’re giving Dalton credit for avoiding a sack when checking down in the face of a blitz and picking up four yards on a pass to the running back, shouldn’t Newton get credit for avoiding a sack when in the face of a blitz he avoids the tackler and runs for 4 yards?
Dalton has 23 rushes this year, but seven of those were quarterback sneaks or kneels; that leaves 16 runs that were likely sacks avoided. Fourteen of Newton’s 86 rushes this year were sneaks or kneels, leaving 72 sacks that were either called quarterback runs or sacks avoided via the run. So Dalton’s adjusted sack rate would be 4.1%; giving Newton credit for a sack avoided for each of those 72 non-sneaks/kneels would make his adjusted sack rate equal 5.3%. Edge Dalton, for sure, but not as significant as the disparity might initially seem.
Net yards per attempt: Net yards per attempt removes sack yards from the numerator and adds sacks to the denominator. Based on the above, NY/A will slightly undervalue Newton, but either way, he has an edge on Dalton. Newton: 6.9 NY/A; Dalton: 6.3 NY/A.
Touchdowns: Newton has thrown 12 touchdowns but run for another 10. Dalton has 16 passing touchdowns and 1 rushing touchdown. One could argue that Newton shouldn’t get as much credit for a rushing touchdown, but I’d rather just say that touchdowns in general are overrated as a measure of quarterback play. Carolina’s offense has produced 27 offensive touchdowns this season — meaning the Panthers have just 5 non-Newton scores from scrimmage this season — while the Bengals have 24 offensive touchdowns (with seven coming from someone not named Andy Dalton). Either way, edge Newton (22 total touchdowns to 17). But even if we did think touchdowns were a good way to measure a quarterback, we’d be more concerned with…
Touchdown rate: Newton has thrown a touchdown 3.1 times per 100 passes, and scored a touchdown on 22 of his 504 plays (rushes, sacks and pass attempts) for a rate of 4.4%. Dalton has a touchdown rate of 4.4%, and has scored a touchdown on 17 of his 402 plays for a rate of 4.2%. Push.
Turnovers: Newton has 14 interceptions and lost two fumbles for a total of 16 turnovers. Dalton has 12 interceptions and one fumble, for a total of 13 interceptions. Dalton, but…
Turnover rate: Newton’s 16 turnovers came on 504 plays; that means only 3.2% of his plays have ended in turnovers. Dalton’s turned the ball over on 3.2% of his plays. Push.
Adjusted net yards per Attempt: ANY/A will undervalue Newton in a couple of ways. First, all of his rushing numbers — his rushing yards and his rushing touchdowns — are not considered. Additionally, his ANY/A will slightly undervalue him for the same reason his NY/A undervalues him (sacks avoided via the run). That said: Newton: 6.0 ANY/A; Dalton: 5.8 ANY/A.
Rushing: Presented without commentary. Newton: 86 carries, 464 yards, 10 touchdowns; Dalton: 23 carries, 81 yards, 1 touchdown.
There is little doubt that Newton’s numbers — all of them, taken together — are more impressive than Dalton. And it’s worth mentioning that even if their rate numbers were the same, the fact that Newton has produced those numbers on an additional 100 players adds some additional value. But it’s not just traditional statistics that favor Newton:
- Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL Statsrank Newton 11th among quarterbacks with 1.16 wins added over average; Dalton is 29th at -0.38. Burke ranks Newton 9th in expected points added, while Dalton ranks 19th in that metric. Burke does give Dalton one slight edge: he ranks 17th in success rate while Newton ranks 19th in that category. But the minor advantage there (46.1% for Dalton vs. 45.6% for Newton) is far outweighed by Newton’s advantages in the other categories.Burke also has Carolina’s offense 5th in EPA, 11th in WPA and 12th in success rate, while Cincinnati’s offense is 22nd, 27th and 19th in those three categories. It’s worth noting that all of Burke’s statistics are adjusted for strength of schedule.
- Football Outsidersis less impressed by Newton, ranking him 18th in DYAR and 19th in DVOA. Dalton ranks 10th and 11th in those categories. Those numbers are passing only — it could be argued Dalton has been the better passer but Newton the better quarterback — but it’s worth pointing out because traditional passing metrics (completion percentage, Y/A, NY/A and ANY/A) favor Newton.Football Outsiders also puts the Cincinnati offense at 15th and the Carolina offense at 24th. However, nearly all of FO’s drive statistics favor the Panthers offense, and some by a significant margin. Take a look at the ranks for each team in each of the following statistics per drive, with the Panthers rank always being listed first (in all categories, a rank closer to 1 is better): Yards (7, 25), Points (9, 19), TDs (8, 19), Punts (9, 27), TOs (24, 4), INT (25, 20), Fum (15, 4), LOS (19, 4) and DSR (8, 26). Cincinnati’s average drive starts at the 30 yard line compared to the 27 for the Panthers. But the Panthers score a touchdown on 22% of drives versus just 18% for the Bengals, while gaining an additional 8 yards and punting 11% less frequently. The Bengals have been magnificent in one area — not fumbling (1% of drives have ended in a fumble) but that’s about it. The main reason FO has Dalton ahead of Newton has to do with red zone performance: Dalton has been great in the red zone (45.9% DVOA) while Newton has been horrible in that area of the field (-46.4%) as a passer.
- Pro Football Focus has Newton as the 6th best quarterback and Dalton as the 16th.
- ESPN’s Total QBR has Newton as the 18th best quarterback and Dalton as the 24th.
Nearly all of the data point to Newton being better than Dalton, although there is considerable disagreement about where the players rank relative to their peers. But that won’t stop people from saying Newton is 3-8 and Dalton is 7-4. Well there are a lot of reasons for that. Let’s start with:
All of the numbers cited in the beginning of this post were presented without strength of schedule adjustment. But Newton’s Panthers have faced a much harder slate of opponents than Dalton’s Bengals.
Against teams in Jeff Sagarin’s top 16, the Bengals are 1-4 this season. The lone win came against the Titans. The Panthers are 0-6, and while Carolina did lose to Tennessee, I’m not sure we would expect Cincinnati to fare much better against Green Bay, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta.
Against teams in the bottom half of the league, the Bengals are a perfect 6-0. The Panthers are 3-2, with losses to Arizona and Minnesota. Against the Cardinals, the Panthers had a fourth quarter lead until Early Doucet and Patrick Peterson (punt return) scored on touchdowns of 70 and 89 yards. Against the Vikings, Newton completed a 44-yard pass on 4th-and-15; a few players later, he had Carolina in range for a 31-yard field goal to tie the game in the final seconds. Mare went wide left. In those two games, Newton was a combined 46 for 72 (64%) for 712 yards (9.9 yards per attempt) with 5 touchdowns and 1 interception, while rushing 14 times for 71 yards and one touchdown.
The Bengals defense has been impressive this season and the better half of the team. Cincinnati ranks 5th in yards allowed, 8th in points, 5th in first downs, 17th in ANY/A allowed and 5th in rushing yards allowed. Carolina ranks 24th in yards allowed, 31st in points, 20th in first downs, 31st in ANY/A allowed and 29th in rushing yards allowed. In other words, the Panthers can’t stop the run, really can’t stop the pass, and have allowed more points this season than every team but the Colts. The Bengals defense is not elite, but in the top quarter of the league.
Football Outsiders ranks the Panthers defense 32nd — 32nd! — while placing the Bengals at 15.
With a better punt coverage unit (Arizona), field goal kicker (Minnesota), defense in the final minutes (New Orleans), run defense and punt coverage unit (Chicago) or defense in general (Detroit), the Panthers would have a much better record.
Conclusion Newton has been far from perfect, but he’s been closer to it than Andy Dalton. Unfortunately for Newton, his team has a much smaller margin for error. Newton’s production has cooled considerably since his monster start, but he’s still having an exceptional rookie season. Dalton’s 4 4th quarter comebacks this season lead the league, and in fact tie him for the most by any rookie in NFL history. But it’s only fair to wonder how many comebacks (or outright wins) Newton would have if he didn’t play alongside one of the worst defenses in the league. Newton is on pace for an incredible 5,174 combined yards of offense. I’m not a big fan of using yards to rank a player, but considering that would be the most in the history of the NFL (until Brees, Brady and/or Rodgers surpass it), it’s worth pointing out.
Dalton has narrowed the gap considerably, but for now, Newton is the clear pick as Offensive Rookie of the First 11 Games.