Cam Newton, RG3 and the sophomore slump

Robert Griffin III, quarterback for the Washington NFL franchise, is having a rough year. Recently fans and sportswriters have started comparing his second season to that of another high profile QB – Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers. It is a hopeful comparison, given Newton’s improved performance this year. Don’t worry, the suggestion goes, RG3 – like Newton – is perhaps just going through a sophmore slump.

Here’s what’s odd about it: Cam Newton never had a sophomore slump.

His quarterback rating was 84.5 in 2011, 86.2 in 2012, and 88.3 in 2013. That looks like steady, incremental progress.

You can raise questions about quarterback ratings (the system is confusing and may give too much weight to elements of the job that aren’t essential to winning football games), but other stats tell the same story.

For instance, by Football Outsiders’ proprietary DVOA statistic, Newton was the 16th best quarterback in the league in 2011, and the 15th best in 2012, and 14th best in 2013.

Pro Football Reference’s Rate+ statistic has him at 100 in 2011, 101 in 2012, and 103 in 2013.

Want something simpler than QB Rating, DVOA and Rate+? How about passing touchdowns divided by interceptions – 21/17 (1.24 TDs per interception) in 2011; 19/12 (1.58) in 2012; 17/9 (1.88) so far in 2013.

The most notable dip in Newton’s 2012 stats came in the running game and only in the ratio of touchdowns to fumbles (his average yards per rush actually improved in 2012), where he went  from 14 rushing touchdowns against only 5 fumbles in 2011, to 8 rushing touchdowns against 10 fumbles in 2012. His rushing touchdowns are on pace to match last year (he has 5 so far), but his fumbles are under control (only 3 so far in 2013).

So how useful is this Newton-RG3 comparison? Not particularly useful, for two reasons. First, Newton didn’t have a passing efficiency drop-off in his second year. Second, last year RG3 was just so much more effective as a passer than Newton has ever been.

RG3’s quarterback rating in 2012 was 102.4, and Football Outsiders had him ranked as the 7th best  passer in the league.  His Rate+ was 120. RG3’s passing effectiveness in 2012 was stratospheric for a rookie. And his drop-off has been dramatic. At a current QB rating of 81.8, RG3 is having a worse passing year than Newton ever has.

This is also a poor comparison because RG3 was never as effective a rushing scorer as Cam Newton – in 2012 RG3 had 7 rushing touchdowns to 12 fumbles. This year he has 0 rushing touchdowns against 11 fumbles.

RG3’s collapse has been really significant. There may be a good comparison to RG3 – one where a rookie QB cracks the top 10 in passing efficiency in his first year, then has a second year where his QB rating dips by 30% or so – but Newton is not an apt comparison.

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