Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton have been perhaps the most discussed quarterbacks in football this season, albeit for vastly different reasons. Kaepernick reached the nadir of his career on Monday when the 49ers benched him in favor of Blaine Gabbert. Newton, on the other hand, is garnering MVP hype on the undefeated Panthers.
This week, some on the football internet began to question whether this discrepancy in narrative was more perception or reality. NFL Now host Marc Istook tweeted an infographic comparing Kaepernick and Newton’s basic passing statistics — which look nearly identical — that made the rounds, receiving nearly 5,000 retweets. The Wall Street Journal ran a clickbaity article titled "Newton and Kaepernick Are Basically the Same Player (Except for the Record)."
At first glance of the numbers, it’s easy to understand why some would reach the conclusion that there hasn’t been a marked difference between Kaepernick and Newton’s quality of play. Even some more advanced statistical measures paint the two quarterbacks as peers. Most notably, QBR actually pegs Kaepernick as the better performer in 2015, with his 47.6 figure ever so slightly edging out Newton’s 46.9 mark.
Whenever the narrative and the numbers veer apart in the way they have with Kaepernick and Newton, your first question should be, "Why?" To find that answer, we have to dig a bit deeper and that starts with the tape. I went back and watched all of Newton’s 2015 drop backs, and the more I watched, the more it became abundantly clear that the notion these two quarterbacks are on equal footing is downright silly. One quarterback is carrying his offense on his back while the other is at the crux of his offense’s problems.
The first place most looking to defend Kaepernick’s play will go is to the supporting cast, namely to the offensive line. San Francisco is indisputably awful up front and you certainly won’t find any argument here. However, take a peak around the rest of the league and you’ll find most NFL offensive lines are pretty bad. Part of what separates the good quarterbacks from the bad is their ability to perform under pressure and make the guys in front of them look better. Navigating the chaotic confines of an NFL pocket has been something Kaepernick has struggled to do with any sort of consistency from the very beginning. The examples are numerous, but this play versus the Packers in Week 4 has stuck with me:
Joe Staley gets charged with the sack, but the fault lies with his quarterback. Rather than stepping up in the pocket once he hits the last step of his drop and finding a wide open Garrett Celek in the back of the end zone, Kaepernick drifts backward. This makes Staley’s job immensely more difficult, as Packers edge defender Nick Perry is left with a more advantageous path to the quarterback. Protections are built around the quarterback being in a particular spot. When he’s not at that spot, things begin to breakdown. And there’s not a tackle in the league who will look good when his quarterback is dropping 10 yards deep like Kaepernick did on this play.
Many have brought up how frequently Kaepernick has been pressured this season, and it’s been a lot. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick has been pressured on 39.6 percent of his drop backs, which is the sixth-highest rate among qualifying quarterbacks. Fewer bring up how frequently those pressures turn into sacks. Kaepernick gets taken to the turf on 24.1 percent of pressured drop backs, the second-highest rate in football behind only Titans rookie Marcus Mariota. The 49ers offensive line is not good by any stretch, but Kaepernick’s poor pocket movement and spatial awareness makes them look considerably worse far too often.
At the other end of the spectrum, Newton spends the majority of his Sundays overcoming mishaps from his teammates. Carolina’s offensive line is a step up from what Kaepernick has to deal with, but you’d be hard pressed to call them good, particularly in pass protection. Ryan Kalil is a rock at the fulcrum (though he’s currently injured), but things get hairy after him, especially outside. Left tackle Michael Oher has been one of the worst tackles in football for a while now. His bookend, Mike Remmers, is even worse and bounced around various practice squads before landing in the Panthers’ starting lineup late last season.
Behind this group, Newton has been pressured on 35.4 percent of his drop backs, which works out to about two fewer snaps per game than Kaepernick if we round up and assume 40 drop backs. Newton is sacked on just 15.1 percent of his pressured drop backs, however, which puts him at just about league average (16th) and well below Kaepernick’s mark. When you roll the tape, it’s easy to see why. Newton is completely unfazed when pressure is coming and bodies are closing in on him, something you can see on this play against the Jaguars:
Cam’s willingness to sit squarely in the middle of the pocket allows Remmer to do what Staley should’ve been able to do on the play above, which is run the edge rusher (Chris Clemons) past the quarterback and out of harm’s way. When it becomes clear that Chris Smith is going to come free up the middle on the stunt, Newton doesn’t look to bail. He stands tall and delivers a strike to Ted Ginn over the middle on the dig route. Pull up any number of drop backs in which Cam is under pressure and you’ll see a quarterback who is comfortable sitting in the pocket until the last possible moment while delivering accurate passes without a ton of room to operate.
Newton’s ability to work within the pocket makes an underwhelming offensive line look much better than it really is, but the bigger hurdle for him to overcome is the receiving corps he’s throwing to.
Greg Olsen is the only remotely reliable target on Carolina’s roster. Ted Ginn, Philly Brown, Devin Funchess, and Jerricho Cotchery are the Panthers’ most targeted wideouts. Think about that for a minute. At one point Ginn was the No. 3 receiver on a 49ers team with lackluster group of receivers, and he’s Cam’s go-to option on the outside. According to Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, Ginn has dropped 23 percent of the catchable passes thrown his direction, which is awful, but not even close to the worst rate on his own team. Funchess has dropped 46 percent of catchable balls. Forty-six percent!
Many of these drops are happening in critical situations, and others are even deflecting into the hands of a defender for interceptions. Just watch some of these plays getting taken off the board due to inexplicable drops. Here’s Ginn dropping a would-be-game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Colts on an absolute dime under pressure from Cam…
And Ginn allowing an Eagles defender to rip the ball out of his hands for an interception…
And Funchess dropping an open dig route during the fourth quarter in Seattle…
And a ball bouncing off Kevin Norwood’s hands at the 6-yard line and into the diving arms of Rahim Moore for another interception…
And Ginn dropping another would-be touchdown on third-and–9 against the Jaguars (which was immediately preceded by a Funchess drop)…
Tally them all up, and 9.3 percent of Newton’s targeted passes have been dropped by the Panthers lousy receivers, which works out to about one in every 11 throws. That’s more than double the rate at which Kaepernick’s passes are dropped (4.1 percent), which adds significant context to the misleading completion percentage numbers being tossed around in Twitter infographics.
Newton is on target with a higher percentage of his throws, and with an average depth of target that’s nearly four yards further downfield than Kaepernick’s, he’s doing it on more difficult throws. And that’s really the other thing that stands out when watching film on these two quarterbacks: Cam makes high-level throws — i.e., throws with anticipation and into tight windows — far more consistently than Kaepernick does at this point.
Manipulating the safety in the middle of the field is a skill Newton appears to have mastered in his fifth season. In the play above, the Eagles are in a Cover 3. The place to attack that coverage is up the seam, and the pre-snap alignment of Malcolm Jenkins in the deep middle surely sets off the seam alarm in Cam’s head. After the snap, Nolan Carroll, the deep-third cornerback to the offense’s left, is in solid position, splitting the two vertical stems from Ginn and Brown. However, by looking right to begin the play, Cam moves Jenkins out of the middle and opens a wider window for Brown up the seam.
The ball location of Newton’s throw bends Brown’s route into that window, leaving Carroll a step behind and unable to make a play on the ball. Cam creates big plays for his offense every week by manipulating the safeties to open windows for his receivers.
Ball location is a big deal for quarterbacks. This is something I’ve often mentioned when breaking down Kaepernick’s games. Good quarterbacks can throw receivers open with ball location and anticipation, two traits that were on display on this Newton overtime pass against the Colts:
Colts safety Dwight Lowery is in perfect trail position on Olsen’s corner route. Olsen doesn’t separate at the break, and for all intents and purposes, is well covered. But Newton beats the coverage with beautiful ball placement over the top of Lowery and to Olsen’s outside shoulder. Here’s another one to Olsen, this time on a dig route against Richard Sherman in Seattle, where Newton puts the ball away from the defense and in a spot only his guy can get it:
Though you might have a hard time convincing Panthers fans after the start to this season, Newton isn’t the best quarterback in football and still makes his share of mistakes. His accuracy doesn’t always show up and there’s the occasional believe-a-little-too-much-in-my-arm-strength throws forced into coverage. But at this point of his career, the positives appreciably outweigh the negatives. He’s clearly operating at a high level when you watch the tape. Plays are rarely left on the field, unless they ricocheted off Funchess’s hands and landed there.
And that’s not even getting into Newton’s value in the run game, which is significant. No quarterback has been more valuable on the ground, per Football Outsiders’s numbers, and it’s not difficult to see why. Carolina’s run game is reminiscent of the Harbaugh-era 49ers at their peak — creative, multiple, and overpowering — and Newton’s skills are a big reason why. Every aspect of that offense is reliant on Newton’s ability, which is how he can be an MVP candidate without racking up gaudy numbers.
Kaepernick and Newton entered the league at the same time with similar questions about their ability to succeed at the professional level. As the No. 1 overall pick, Newton was obviously the more highly touted prospect, but both players had immense physical tools — no one questioned the size-speed-arm strength trifecta each player possessed. Even though they came from different college offenses — Kaepernick from the Pistol offense under Chris Ault at Nevada and Newton from Gus Malzahn’s power spread at Auburn — draftniks questioned their ability to run an NFL offense and play from the pocket.
When they met twice during the 2013 season, including a matchup in the divisional round of the playoffs, it appeared those questions were being answered emphatically and we headed toward a decade of meaningful Kaepernick-Newton duels. Both players were members of a group of young passers, along with Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and Robert Griffin III, who were supposed to revolutionize the way the position was played and usher in the newest class of franchise quarterbacks.
Nearly two seasons later, Kaepernick and Newton have gone in drastically different directions. Kaepernick has failed to develop and improve on his weaknesses, and with everything collapsing around him, he now finds himself backing up one of the worst quarterbacks in NFL history. Newton has built upon his Rookie of the Year debut and has never played at a higher level than what we’re seeing from him this season.
While watching his tape over the past couple days, I couldn’t help but think how Newton is now the player Kaepernick was supposed to become. A true dual-threat quarterback capable of playing at a high level from the pocket and making something out of nothing with his preternatural athleticism when the play appeared to be exhausted. A quarterback capable of lifting the players around him above their talent levels and making his team competitive just by stepping on the field. This is what we thought we were getting from Kaepernick when he set the league on fire during the 2012 Playoffs.
Now, those days feel like lifetime ago. After watching him stagnate over the past two seasons, I don’t know if Kaepernick will ever get to the level of play we’re currently seeing from Newton, at least in San Francisco. But the one thing I do know is that anyone who thinks Kaepernick and Newton "are basically the same player" isn’t paying attention.