If you were in charge of player-personnel decisions for the NFL team that had the opportunity to choose between Cam Newton or Andrew Luck, which quarterback would you take? I think this is probably one of the most compelling questions I’ve seen all season. There are so many layers of analysis to explore with this type of question.
While Newton was considered a fine quarterback prospect, only a few really nailed him as a player capable of making a Peyton Manning/Carson Palmer impact early in his career. And even fewer did as good of a job debunking the “running quarterback” myth with Newton than Chris Kouffman and Simon Clancy. Their analysis of Cam Newton was dead-on this winter. I highly recommend you make this your lunchtime read. I think the work they did was most impressive and something to learn from.
But then there’s Luck, who is considered the best prospect in the last 20 years. Unlike Newton, Luck is a three-year starter in a pro-style offense that uses West Coast concepts. Luck also has freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage with the authority of veteran pro quarterbacks while Newton played in what is conceptually recognized as a highly simplified offense by comparison at Auburn. Furthermore, Luck is an athletic quarterback who is more physically mobile along the lines of Ben Roethlisberger or Tarvaris Jackson than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.
So what do you do, take arguably the “best quarterback prospect in the past 20 years” or take arguably “the best performing rookie quarterback in the past 20 years?” Since few people thought Newton would display this kind of pocket presence, skill at reading the field, and wise but aggressive decision-making as a rookie, isn’t it just as possible that Luck’s adjustment could be just as surprisingly disappointing as Newton’s was surprisingly successful?
There’s also a racial element at play here when it comes to fans and analysts and it’s a complex issue. There are those whose ignorance is cloaked with innocent intentions: comparing black athletes to other black athletes exclusively without taking a deeper look at the individual’s game or thinking deeply enough about the nature of the comparison and the incorrect assumptions that come from it. At the same time there are those with their hearts in the right place, but immediately suspect bias is involved when a comparison between black athletes is made when deeper examination supports such an analysis and the fact that both athletes are of the same race is merely incidental.
I’ve had a few readers and Twitter follows question my comparison of Cam Newton to Steve McNair and Daunte Culpepper (at his best) because they thought it biased of me to compare him to other black quarterbacks an not include white signal callers. I thought their hearts were in the right place, but they didn’t know I’ve also compared Newton to Ben Roethlisberger in terms of his ability to hang in the pocket and his throwing prowess. They only saw the possibility that Newton was stereotyped as a running quarterback, which is often code for “he can’t throw.” And some of these readers also thought of McNair as a running quarterback when closer examination and deeper thought would reveal that McNair developed into perhaps one of the toughest pocket passers in the game. He just happened to be a hell of a runner, too.
That said, I agree with these readers that there is a tendency for the public (media and fans) to take a lazy approach and rely upon comparisons that give a black quarterback short shrift whereas with a white quarterback like Andrew Luck, analysis and fans will say “and he can run, too!” after complimenting his skill as a pocket passer. Still, I thought it was fair to compare Newton’s role in his college offense to that of Vince Young. And I still think it was a fair question to wonder if Newton’s lack of experience in a more complex offense would require a longer transition in comparison to Luck, who is playing in an offense that is NFL-tested. And if so, would Newton display the work ethic to make the transition that Young lacked?
However this type of statement above treads a fine line because it could come across as if one is questioning Newton’s ability to work by comparing him specifically to Vince Young, when that question was actually asked within the context of all young NFL quarterbacks – black and white – that either didn’t relentlessly work at their craft to continuously improve or their work process wasn’t yielding the desired results: Young, Ryan Leaf, Jeff George, Derek Anderson, and Daunte Culpepper are all notable examples.
I believe Newton’s one huge season, simplified offense, and great athleticism earned him a lot heavier criticism and skepticism than what we will see levied at Andrew Luck. I think the heavier criticisms on these grounds are fair and have nothing to do with race. Certainly Blaine Gabbert was questioned about his lack of experience with a pro style offense. While his playbook didn’t appear as simple as Newton’s, the fact that the TV segment focused on Newton not being able to recite a play call to Jon Gruden magnified the difference between Auburn’s offense and other college programs. However, it also made Newton appear like he wasn’t a student of the game. I like to say there is truth and there is television and they don’t always mix.
Newton also received a lot more criticism about an incident with a laptop at Florida than Peyton Manning received for allegedly harassing a female member of the UT football staff (and subsequently settling out of court). This is where there is generally a disparity in the level of criticism and scrutiny between black and white quarterbacks. Personally, I don’t think there was anything wrong with the level of scrutiny aimed at Newton for his off-field actions. However, I do think it was wrong that Manning got a free pass or Matt Leinart’s partying didn’t become an issue until he failed numerous times to capture and maintain a starting NFL gig when there was a plenty of evidence that Leinart lacked the work ethic most teams sought from a franchise quarterback.
I also wonder if Andrew Luck performs remotely as well as Cam Newton will his rookie year will be classified as a “shocking” surprise or merely a “pleasant” surprise? I’m not sure there is one good answer to that question. Race remains a hot button topic in the U.S. and while we have made strides as a nation we still have a long way to go. It’s a complex topic that requires more sensitive, but unflinching discussion in my opinion.
But back to the hypothetical question, would it be Newton or Luck if I were an NFL GM and know what we know at this moment?
I’d have to take Newton. He’s logically the best choice because he’s demonstrated that he’s more than capable of making the transition to the NFL and Luck hasn’t had that chance yet. There’s a possibility that Luck could have a better career than Newton once he enters the league but no matter how great of a prospect he’s considered, he hasn’t had the opportunity to prove what Newton already has. And what Newton has proven is that he’s a poised, tough, and accurate pocket passer capable of taking what defenses throw at him and making good decisions on a consistent basis.
This doesn’t mean that Newton won’t struggle as defenses formulate something that frustrates him, but if I saw Newton do at Auburn what I’m seeing him consistently do at Carolina, I would have thought he was one of the best skill position prospects I’ve ever seen. At the same time, I’ve seen Luck perform consistently in ways I’ve never seen before at the college level.
And that’s the problem, Luck is the best college quarterback prospect I have seen in terms of his performance of criteria that is most translatable to NFL success. However, Newton didn’t have the opportunity to perform to as many of these criteria points because of his offense and only one year on a team at the highest level of the college game.
So technically, Luck is the best college quarterback I have ever evaluated. But Newton is the best rookie quarterback I have ever seen. If this is the case then Newton clearly gets the nod because Luck’s evaluation is based on the theory he can hang in the NFL, Newton has undeniable proof.