I think the game might be changing before our eyes. Spread fields, explosive offenses, record number of pass attempts. Through the first two weeks of the season, teams are calling more pass plays than ever; the pass-run ratio this year is 58.8-41.2 (counting sacks as pass plays), which is two percentage points higher than a year ago. Feels like more than that, doesn't it?
And consider this. In Week 1, when the Patriots spread the field from their own half-yard line and Tom Brady threw a 99-yard touchdown pass, that was a sign of something you wouldn't have seen a few years ago. (And not by many teams today, either.) Here's another wrinkle. Through last season, Brady had started since 2001 and had one 400-yard passing game. And in his first two games in the National Football League, Cam Newton has two.
The Newton phenomenon is interesting because we've never seen a rookie quarterback being as good as Newton is as soon as this. Through two games, he's completed 62.7 percent of his throws for the other-worldly sum of 854 yards -- and a similarly other-worldly 10.3 yards per attempt. Some other great quarterbacks' career YPAs: Dan Fouts 7.7, Peyton Manning 7.6, Brady 7.3.
We'll see if it continues with the Jags coming to Charlotte Sunday. Jacksonville's a good run defense team, so look for Newton to fill the air with footballs again.
Five reasons I think Newton's off to such a good start:
1. His arm can make up for a lot of deficiencies. "His velocity is really good,'' Charles Woodson said Sunday, stating the obvious. Newton has thrown a couple of off-balance passes longer than 40 yards, including a 55-yarder from an awkward position under pressure against Green Bay. And it's not just the ability to throw from less than perfect positions and zip it. He's been zipping it with accuracy, as his 62.7 percent rate shows. That's terrific for a first-time pro, obviously. That's the kind of career accuracy Michael Vick would love to have.
2. He's been so well-traveled in recent years that this isn't a culture shock to him. Newton's gone from Urban Meyer's spread system at Florida in 2008 to a version of the Pistol offense at Blinn (Junior) College in Texas in 2009; in the Pistol, the quarterback stands about halfway back to where a passer would take a snap in the shotgun -- maybe four yards instead of the deeper seven -- giving him the ball faster and allowing him to make decisions quicker while still being able to analyze the defense before the snap. Then in 2010 it was on to the Auburn option offense, and now the pro style, versatile scheme of Ron Chudzinski (a big fan of throwing to the tight end and downfield). Four different worlds in four years. He's had to adjust to new offenses, new people, new cities. He's almost like a military brat, or a coach's kid, always moving. This helps him not only culturally but in learning a new system. He's had a major new system change every year for the last four.
3. Ron Rivera and Chudzinski have made the learning manageable. Yes, as has been widely reported, Newton got a playbook in the one-day thaw on draft weekend, and was able to study the terminology and plays he'd be running in Carolina. He also spent time in Florida at a football camp with former pro quarterbacks Ken Dorsey and Chris Weinke, both familiar with the Chudzinski system. Dorsey played for Chudzinski when he was a Browns backup and Chudzinski was the coordinator.
But as much as that, Newton hasn't been overwhelmed by the learning process because the Panthers didn't teach him everything in the playbook. That will likely come next offseason. Rivera told me what they did was teach him a base number of plays and formations that will be the bedrock of what the Panthers do every week. And then they will teach and install another handful of plays each week that will be opponent-specific. Last week against Green Bay, Rivera said it was about 75 percent from the base package and 25 percent installed for the Packers. That's a smart way to do it, I think.
4. He's not abandoning the pocket like lots of talented athletic quarterbacks have done early in their career. Sometimes he probably should choose to run; I saw a couple of those Sunday against Green Bay. Knowing the right time to stay and when to go is something he'll learn in time. Chad Pennington, who did the color on the first Newton game, at Arizona, said Newton is determined to become a strong pocket quarterback.
"[Quarterback coach] Mike Shula has worked very hard with him on his pass drop, because obviously he was a shotgun quarterback most of the time in college,'' Pennington said. "He's very conscious of his footwork in the five- and seven-step drops. You can see how he wants to get it just right. And you could tell when we talked to him the day before the game how much it irks him to be thought of as a running quarterback. I could see it in his facial expression -- it bugs him that people would think he's not up to par on the mental side of the game, or will just start running as soon as anything goes wrong.''
5. Speaking of the mental side ... Fact is, Newton has been more Peyton Manning in the first two weeks than a nervous Nelly back there. "Look at the funky defense Arizona had in there on his touchdown to Steve Smith,'' said Pennington. "They're just walking around before the snap, clearly trying to confuse him about who'd be rushing and who'd drop in coverage. At the snap of the ball, there's not anybody in a three-point stance. Then at the snap, the backside safety comes toward the line, [cornerback] Patrick Peterson blitzes, and through the confusion, Smith runs by the safety and Cam ignores everything and throws him a perfect ball for a touchdown. For a rookie to know that, to process that, is pretty special.''
Newton will learn when not to challenge a baiting corner; I'm sure Monday and today he's run the two Charles Woodson interceptions from Sunday over and over in his head -- and on digital video in the Panthers' quarterback room. It's a learning process. The one thing we've seen so far is that Newton's a very quick study, which should take him a long way in the NFL.
Now onto your email:
EITHER BECAUSE IT'S JUST WEEK TWO, OR I'M WRONG, OR BOTH. "How do you explain leaving the Chargers out of your fine 15? They lost, on the road to the top team. They were in the game all the way to the end. They lost because of an amazing play by a defensive lineman and a gaffe by a running back. Their offense drove the ball well and the D even shut down the Pats for an entire quarter. Pittsburgh gets steamrolled by Baltimore and shuts down one of the two worst teams in football (Seattle), and they are number six? What gives?''-- Jason Orchard; Hayward, Cal.
Good question. I'm sure the Chargers will be in the Fine Fifteen soon, and for much of the year. But they struggled to beat Minnesota, gave up another return touchdown, then had the turnover problems again in New England at key moments. Haven't been very impressed with the Chargers so far. I picked them to win the AFC, and I haven't given up on them, and I love Rivers, but I want to see them play well.
YOU'RE RIGHT: I SHOULD HAVE CREDITED HANSON. "Not to take away from Britton Colquitt but you missed the mark on the special teams player of the week. Detroit kicker Jason Hanson set the record for most games played for a single team at 297, kicked a record 46th field goal of 50 yards or more, made a TD-saving tackle, and became only the seventh player in league history to break 1,900 points, all in his 20th year in the league. Hanson has been a player that Lions fans could always depend on even during the darkest times. Where's the love?''-- Jeff Blow; Flat Rock, Mich.
MIKE DOESN'T THINK TEAMS SHOULD PAY RUNNING BACKS. "You noted in your column that the Chicago Bears should pay Matt Forte, to which I would disagree to some extent. My comment/question with all the running backs holdouts this year: Is it really worth it, with injuries, RB longevity, etc., for a team to pay big money to any back in today's game? I think it has become clear over the last few years, and Mike Shanahan exemplifies this, that almost any HB can be productive put in the right situation, so why would you pay over-the-top money for any running back. I'm certainly not going to argue some deserve to be paid above others because they are in a higher class, but given the nature of the position, it's ridiculous to pay a running back as much as a top quarterback.''-- Mike; Lamar, Pa.
I didn't suggest paying a running back like a top quarterback. I suggested paying him, period. Forte is one of the Bears' five most valuable players, and he's making $555,000 this year, the last year of his contract. The Bears should do the right thing and pay him commensurate with the top five to 10 backs in football.
YEA DREW! "My favorite non-game story of the week is the three-minute standing ovation given to Drew Bledsoe. He was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame, and got to say a few words at halftime. He tried repeatedly to calm the crowd, but they stood and cheered for the player who led them to the 1996 Super Bowl, was instrumental in their first championship (playing in relief of an injured Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship Game), and handled the quarterback transition in 2001 with as much class and team-first attitude as anyone has ever seen. Nice moment for him, his family and the fans.''-- Scott O'Neill; Waltham, Mass.
Thanks for writing in and mentioning it. Bledsoe is a good man.
SOMETHING NICE ABOUT ANDY DALTON. "Can you say something nice about Andy Dalton? Three touchdowns so far, no picks. Has made some beautiful throws and showed a lot of poise. He is also throwing to AJ Green (rookie), Gresham (2nd year) Shipley (2nd year) and Jerome Simpson (first year starting). Granted, it was against the Browns and a banged up Denver team, still, all the talk about Newton and even Carson Palmer and not a single mention of Dalton?''-- Chris; Cincinnati
There are a lot of worthy events and people I do not mention in Monday Morning Quarterback each week. Look at the letter above yours about Jason Hanson. Should I have mentioned what he did? Of course. If I had the time and the vision to see all aspects of all games, the column would be significantly more thorough, and probably longer.
Here's my situation, Chris: I am on NBC on Sundays during the season. I watch quite a bit of the early games and makes notes on them for my column and for phone calls I want to make after the games, preparing for the Football Night in America show on NBC. So I don't see a lot of the late games, though I see the big plays in them usually. Particularly in a game of low national importance -- the late Cincinnati-Denver game -- I don't focus my attention unless something fairly extraordinary happens, or a major injury happens. Then, after doing some reporting for NBC and SI, and then some video stuff for SI.com, I get back to my hotel to begin writing about 5,500 words for my Monday column. That begins about 11:15 p.m., usually, and if the Sunday night game is a good one, as it was this week, I'll watch the end of that. Then I write till about 7 a.m. I miss things. In fact, I miss a lot of them. I try not to, but in a column like this one, with one person doing everything from soup to nuts, it's inevitable. All of that is not an excuse for missing things I make note of. It's just the reality of the job I do. I will try to watch some of Dalton this week against the 49ers.
BELICHICK AND THE HALL OF FAME. "In light of your write-up of Bill Belichick (interesting phrase "he wants the story to be told right"), my armchair-HOF-voter question is this: How much does Spygate impact the question about his worthiness for the Hall? There are certainly theories about how long the videotaping had actually been going on, and of course many people rightly point out that he hasn't won any Super Bowls (and to a lesser extent, fewer playoff games) since Spygate was uncovered. Is there anything comparable in NFL history? Should we just think of it as sign-stealing in baseball? It seems a little more premeditated than sign-stealing, but perhaps not. Do you feel that Belichick's responsibility for Spygate changes the HOF calculation?''-- Aaron; Baltimore
Aaron, it will be a factor in the deliberations over Belichick, I'm sure. It should be. As I often say about the Hall and its voting process, I'm one of 44 voters, and I cannot look into the hearts of the other 43 and pretend to know how any of them feel about this. I know how I feel, and I feel it was a breach of the rules and is significant. But would it prevent me from voting for Belichick if he continues on this path of greatness, being a trendsetter in so many ways in the modern game, with three Super Bowl titles as head coach and two others as a defensive coordinator? No.
TWITTER CHANGING THE LEAGUE. "In terms of Twitter 'changing the league,' you could argue that the information fans (like myself) want and need is more readily available than ever. I get player analysis from Greg Cosell, breaking updates from you, Adam Schefter and Jason La Canfora. Hell, some players will even respond to you when you ask questions (Tony Gonzalez, Adam Carriker) I don't have time to watch all the shows all the time, but if I just take a glance down my timeline, I see most of what I need.''-- Chris; Maryland
Absolutely. I'm a big Twitter fan for those reasons too. My problem was ESPN's overly dramatic tease, not the fact that Twitter has changed the landscape of how some fans enjoy the game, and how some media people keep current with things around the league. When you say something has "changed the league,'' I don't consider how fans interact with the media and maybe very occasionally with a player to be "changing the league'' in any way, shape or form.