Does Cam Newton really deserve to be MVP? (Hint: The Answer is No, Carson Palmer does.)

Cam Newton has been hyped up ridiculously all season for the MVP award and at this point it almost seems like a given that he’s going to get it. For a while now, most of the talking heads have assumed it to be fact that Cam is the number 1 MVP candidate out there. And this isn’t just coming from the blabbermouths; a lot of smart writers have jumped on the Cam train as well.

I’ve had this article in the (mental) works for about half of the season now but haven’t gotten the chance to sit down and write it. Sure, it may have been early to be thinking about MVP back then, but that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of the media starts throwing names out from week 1, and this is really just a response to a lot of what’s out there. However, now that the regular season is over and all the games are in the books, all that won’t be an issue, and we can truly evaluate who has been the most valuable player for 16 games. It will also be good to get this article out of the way before the playoffs start and we’re all focused on, well… the playoffs. Plus, if any of the MVP candidates play well or poorly in the playoffs, that might cloud peoples’ minds.

If I had indeed written this article back at the mid point of the season it would have been a lot easier. Earlier in the season there were several quarterbacks playing better than Cam. It just seemed like another case of Cam being overhyped just like he had been in previous years. This isn’t the first time analysts had mentioned his name in the MVP convo, but they had been forced to drop it seeing as his teams were in the constant  8-8 zone. But seeing as the Panthers were undefeated for the majority of the season, the hype train could justifiably be continued.

What complicates the matter, however, is that Cam has indeed been playing very very well for the second half of the season. This has blurred the lines much more between Cam and the other high level quarterbacks and has given Cam fans just the results they needed to see to seal in their minds the MVP argument.

Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders was talking about on Twitter a few weeks back about how Cam’s preseason overhype combined with his late season level of play, which finally actually matched the level people had been elevating him to, was a perfect storm to make Cam an MVP lock in most peoples minds. To me, I see many similarities to the public view of Tom Brady’s career. During the early New England dynasty when Brady was winning Super Bowls (01-06), people were elevating Tom to godlike status. Don’t get me wrong, he was very very good at the time. But in many peoples minds, he was already in contention for GOAT and was already arguably better than Peyton Manning. Tom was a complementary player–albeit a very good one–on some great teams, but he wasn’t quite at the level people were raising him to in their conversations. However, in the later years (2007+), he actually reached this level, consistently throwing for 4000+ years, 30+ TDs, 100+ passer rating, etc. Once Tom got to this point, seeing as most already viewed him as in contention for GOAT status, his escalation from that already ascended point in their minds all but sealed him as the unarguable GOAT, for these people.

That’s a bit of a tangent, but the point is Cam’s always been overhyped, and now his level of play is actually matching the hype. That’s great for Cam and I don’t mean to belittle his improvement. I would not have foreseen it at the beginning of the season. But my point is it doesn’t automatically make him the MVP. As much as there has been some pretty disappointing QB play this year (Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill), there’s also been some very good QB play (Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer). Most of those guys I just mentioned you could make a reasonable case for Cam being the MVP over them. (By the way, I’m just focusing on Quarterbacks because in this day in age, and rightfully so, it’s generally a given that quarterbacks win the MVP award. They’re just too influential when compared to the other positions.) Tom Brady had a great start to the season but fell off once the Pats injuries settled in. Drew Brees has been very good, but the Saints finished the season 7-9 and their offense has been eh. Andy Dalton has been having a career year, but most view him as a very good game manager but not quite the guy that carries the team on his back. Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than most people probably recognize, but he’s always been overlooked. Also, he missed a quarter of the season due to injury.

However, there’s one guy out of all of these that has had a rightful claim to the MVP award since week 1, and that guy is Carson Palmer. Most acknowledge Carson as an MVP candidate but put him second to Newton–often with little to no explanation. Well here’s my challenge to those people: Seeing as what Carson Palmer has accomplished this season, why wouldn’t he be your number 1 choice for the MVP?

carson cam

If you want explanations for the meaning any of these stats, click here: Passer RatingESPN QBRDVOADVOA In Depth ExplanationEPAPro Football Focus Grades

As you can see, Carson Palmer has the statistical advantage in almost every significant category and measure. Stats of course, do not always tell the whole story. But more often than not, they tell most of the story. And this should set an alarm off in your head that maybe Cam hasn’t been the best quarterback in the league this year. You might not buy into some of these statistics, but when the majority of different statistics agree on something, it tends to be more likely the case.

I didn’t include rushing touchdowns and yards because obviously Cam has more of those. But it is important to remember that metrics like QBR, DVOA, EPA, and PFF grading all account for rushing. So according to those, even after you account for Cam’s rushing, Carson was still the better player.

Which makes sense, because most people tend to overestimate the influence of a quarterback’s legs, often forgetting that the best quarterbacks in the history of the game were pocket passers. Over all these years, that hasn’t really changed. People have been trying to hype up the mobile QB as the next big thing ever since Michael Vick first came into the league. And while there is no doubt that defenses need to account for the ability of these guys to run with the football, the quarterback position never seems to be “revolutionized” in the way many say it’s going to be. And the reason for that is because passing is still the most efficient way to move the football. That’s just a basic fact of physics that’s never going to change. From an energy lost and success perspective, it’s easier and quicker to throw a ball ten yards in the air than it is to tuck and stride for ten yards on the ground.

Again, that’s a bit of a tangent, but the point is you can’t simply point out Cam’s rushing numbers and have that be your case for MVP, especially when his passing numbers are inferior AND when metrics that account for running and passing still rate him as inferior. It’s also important to mention that Cam gets a lot of touchdowns on the ground because he simply gets more opportunities to run the ball at the goal line than other QBs do. Am I saying that Carson Palmer could score that many touchdowns if the Cardinals chose to give him goal line carries? Of course not. But he has no reason to have to do this, because most carries that close to the goal line are reserved for the running back, and most of those carries are guaranteed scores anyway. This is not to discredit all of Cam’s rushing success, but it certainly has to be taken into account.

Then you have to think about what kind of team these Quarterbacks are on and, perhaps more importantly, what their role is on that team. This is where most people get their arguments for Cam from. “He’s throwing to Ted Ginn as his No 1 receiver!” they say. There are lots of elements to this statement that need to be analyzed. It’s a classic case of “if x quarterback had y players, he’d be unstoppable!” It’s always tough to argue against because it’s built on hypotheticals so it’s technically impossible to prove wrong. But such arguments are classic cases of failing to isolate the play and attributes of the quarterback themselves and also failing to recognize that WR is the most QB dependent position in the NFL. More often than not, the QB makes the receiver. Also, just because a QB is playing with lesser players doesn’t excuse him for having inferior stats, just like a QB can’t simultaneously have good receivers and also be playing well. Also, for some reason, most people who acknowledge wide receivers fail to look at the rest of the team. It doesn’t matter if your wide receivers are average if your defense holds the opposing team to ten points a game, but again I’m digressing here. I’m not saying wide receivers don’t matter at all, but it has to be looked at in conjunction with and on a case by case basis.

So let’s look at how this relates to Carson and Cam. First of all, it’s not like Carson Palmer’s receivers are that good either. Larry Fitzgerald is Larry Fitzgerald, obviously, but funny how every other QB he’s had outside of Kurt Warner was terrible, despite having him to throw to. Then on the outside you have Michael Floyd and John Brown, not top 5 guys but very good players. However, Carson’s been at the top of his game in every sense: pinpoint accuracy, decision making and reading defenses, pocket footwork, etc. He’s dropping balls in the bucket on tough throws. It’s not like his receivers are bailing him out. It’s also worth mentioning that when Floyd and John Brown have been injured, JJ Nelson and Jaron Brown have stepped in and the passing game doesn’t skip a beat. Brown and Floyd are definitely better than Ginn, but it’s worth mentioning that Ginn seems to be running past cornerbacks in just about every game. He may do one thing (get deep), but he does that one thing extremely well.

Then you have to look at the rest of the team. Cam has a top 5 tight end in Greg Olsen, and that matters in today’s NFL, where the rules make it so QBs thrive in the middle of the field. Arizona has Jermaine Gresham playing tight end, and they’ve built the offense around tough throws to the outside receivers. In Cincinnati, Gresham has been replaced by Tyler Eifert, who currently leads the league in TD catches. Tight ends shouldn’t be ignored when talking about “weapons”.

Outside of those aspects I would say the teams are fairly similar. Arizona has run the ball surprisingly well, but I still give the edge to Carolina (2nd to 8th for Arizona). That includes Cam and he certainly is a factor, but there’s a difference between acknowledging how he affects the defense and saying that he’s the entire reason the run game is so good. You still have to have a back, and Jonathan Stewart has been balling. Carolina is also a run first team. Arizona has the 2nd best passing offense in the league compared to 24th best for Carolina. Yikes.

Then you have defense. I once again give the edge to Carolina, but this one is about as tight as it gets. Its 5th (ARI) And 6th (CAR) for yards, but 6th (CAR) and 7th (ARI) for points.

Furthermore, an aspect of QB play most often ignored by analysts, is offensive scheme. Cam Newton has rightfully shedded the game manager label over the second half of the season. But his offense is built around the running game (which includes him). He runs what is basically a college option offense based on deception in the backfield. It’s not as simplistic as the 2012 redskins with RG3, but there’s no doubt that the backfield play action and option threats simplify the reads for the quarterback. Palmer, on the other hand, plays in an aggressive pass-first Bruce Arians offense that spreads the field and asks the Quarterback to take deep drops and push the ball down the field consistently. Arians consistently utilizes empty backfields and full field reads, which make it difficult on the Quarterback. You need a smart quarterback that can read defenses, move in the pocket, and get the ball out of his hands. We know Arians is a good coach and has good route concepts, but the level of difficulty of his offense is incredibly high. And Palmer is thriving. The fact that he’s close to 64% completion and 9 yards per attempt in such a tough throw/low percentage throw offense is not getting nearly enough credit. Those are excellent numbers, and Palmer is thriving. On the other hand, the fact that Newton is below 60% completion speaks to the fact that he is still having accuracy issues and missing throws, although not as much as in the past.

Lastly, and I think this is really the tipping point, is protection and pressure. Offensive line play is crucial yet it is often ignored when evaluating quarterbacks. Cam Newton has a significantly better offensive line. Carson Palmer is as good as anyone in the league at getting rid of the ball quickly to protect his offensive line. He’s also going to hang in the pocket and take the hit and still deliver the throw where it needs to go. He’s also improved his footwork this year and is moving really well within the pocket, arguably better than Newton who, despite his excellent ability to run outside the pocket, can still be statuesque at times. And worst of all, although Cam Newton isn’t pressured much, he’s significantly worse when he is pressured, while Carson has thrived under pressure.

None of this is meant to criticize Newton, although the process invariably does lead to some of that. What it is meant to do is show that despite the fact that nearly every analyst has declared it gospel that Cam Newton is the MVP, any analysis shows that it is Carson Palmer who rightfully deserves the award. Both players have had career seasons, but the better player is pretty clear. So if Carson Palmer is playing so well, why isn’t he talked about like that?

I think Cam Newton is getting the hype for a variety of reasons. Like I already mentioned, there’s the lazy analysis of overemphasizing the impact of receivers and of a quarterback’s ability to run. These are definitely factors. But even moreso influencing the hype, in my opinion, is that Cam Newton is a more popular player than Palmer. Carson Palmer is a boring old pocket passer who was written off long ago in his Cincinnati days. He doesn’t dance after every play (although he did do this), and he gives boring, even-tempered interviews. (His throws are pretty impressive, but apparently that’s not good enough for people.) To talk about Palmer as being good now would be to go against the narrative. Meanwhile, Cam Newton–similarly to Johnny Manziel, who was also overhyped for no apparent reason–is a spectacle. He’s got a gun for an arm and can bulldoze people on the ground. And right now he’s the league’s baby, the next big thing at Quarterback they’re waiting to sell. And we all know this is a league of superstars. Coverage is rarely even.

If you like watching Cam do obnoxious and childish 20 minute celebrations after every score and every first down, then fine. Whatever. But that has nothing to do with who is deserving of an MVP award. Even if Cam has played well–and he has, without a doubt–he hasn’t been the best, most consistent, and most valuable Quarterback in the league. When you take the names off the jersey and look at the players themselves and what they have done on the field, there’s only one right answer, and it’s Carson Palmer. What other quarterback would be first or close to first in every major passing category, lead the league’s highest scoring offense and second best passing, and not be widely considered the MVP? Also, not that any of this matters, but Carson Palmer is 36 years old, has been in the league since 2003, is on his third team, hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009 (and 2005 before that), and is coming off his second ACL tear. If the league is about stories, that sounds like a pretty good story to me. Bottom line, Carson Palmer is the MVP of the 2015 NFL Season, and to give it to anyone else while relegating him to Comeback Player of the Year would be an absolute slap in the face.

As always, thanks to those who read the whole article. I now have an archives page! Be sure to check it out at Until next time!

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4 thoughts on “Does Cam Newton really deserve to be MVP? (Hint: The Answer is No, Carson Palmer does.)

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