The current comparison between Cam Newton and Matt Ryan is a prototypical example of how quarterbacks are judged (fairly or unfairly) by their team success. Quarterbacks have a larger direct impact on whether their team wins or loses than a starting pitcher in baseball, but that is something we have begun to discount in favor of advanced analytics.
Newton inherited a 2-14 Panthers’ team when he entered the NFL as a rookie and led a four-win improvement, but his second season resulted in just one more win and a lower completion percentage.
Ryan, on the other hand, took a 4-12 team to an 11-5 record in his rookie season and an appearance in the playoffs. The Falcons missed the playoffs in his second season and his stats were worse almost across the board.
The Panthers remain a team in flux and that means we do not know yet if Newton is merely the type of quarterback that will put up big fantasy football numbers with mediocre team success, or the type of transcendent quarterback that won a National Championship at Auburn and who can lead his team to a Super Bowl performance with dominant individual performances similar to what we saw from Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers last January. Many observers in the NFL would prefer Kaepernick or Ruseell Wilson over Newton, but he is younger than both players.
Newton had a passer rating of 84.5 as a rookie and 86.2 last season, which has become league average in the modern NFL. His ability to run the ball (5.7 yards per career attempt) makes him special and potentially impossible to stop if he can become more accurate. Until the Panthers give Newton a better offensive scheme and receiving weapons, we are left wondering if the results ever match the potential.
Ryan became one of the NFL’s most accurate quarterbacks last season with an increase in his responsibilities. The Falcons went away from the run and Ryan completed 68.6 percent of his 615 attempts, which shattered his previous career high. Ryan had a passer rating of 99.1, becoming an elite quarterback when it looked like he might plateau on that second strata around 90.0.
Ryan is now 28, but there is little doubt that his skill-set will age well and he almost certainly will get to play the remainder of his career throwing to a legitimate lead receiver in Julio Jones.
After some early career playoff disappointments, the Matty Ice nickname has become deserved. Ryan had a number of remarkable comebacks during the regular season in 2012 and miraculously setup a Matt Bryant field goal to defeat the Seahawks to advance to the NFC Championship Game. We know Ryan is now more than capable of leading a quality team to a Super Bowl and being in that 85-90 percentile while minimizing mistakes is hugely valuable.
The Panthers had another strong candidate in Luke Kuechly, while Julio Jones could be the best receiver in the NFL not named Calvin Johnson, but two quarterbacks of this caliber in their twenties are the clear choices.