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Will Cam Newton’s Fantasy Football Stock Fall if the Carolina Panthers ‘De-Emphasize’ the Read-Option?

Cam Newton
Cam Newton

May 30, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton throws a pass during the practice held at the Carolina Panthers practice facility. Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

When Carolina Panthers coaches call for the scaling back of an offensive scheme that netted Cam Newton 73 percent of his 2012 fantasy football rushing production, you pay close attention.

Whether you scream, “Fire!” in a crowded theater and jolt for the exit is another question entirely.

The Charlotte Observer reported June 18 – as a bit of a side note, no less – that first-year Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula would “de-emphasize” read-option usage that has helped make Newton a preeminent fantasy producer and a near consensus top-three quarterback headed into the 2013 campaign.

The reaction has included those who point to the Panthers’ shift in offensive philosophy last season and Newton’s subsequent fantasy domination, and those who rightly charge that Carolina’s designed runs have been a key ingredient in making Newton a prized fantasy commodity.

Twenty of his 22 career rushing touchdowns, after all, have come courtesy of the designed run.

I’d like to put forth a third argument: we never really saw the Panthers part ways with the read-option scheme, or at least a scheme that includes plenty of designed runs for Newton.

Read more about Cam Newton and other running quarterbacks…
Fantasy Football Perspective: Getting to Know Running Quarterbacks

Newton, in the first half of the 2012 season that saw him finish as the 12th highest scoring signal caller – a whole two points ahead of Andy Dalton – rushed an average of five times a game on designed runs. It was after the Panthers’ Week 7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that Panthers coaches and beat writers trumpeted a marked shift away from the read-option and toward a more conventional offense — presumably one without a glut of designed runs for Newton.

Two-thirds of the Panthers’ running plays had stemmed from the read-option going into their Week 8 tilt against the Chicago Bears. (See the 3:20 mark of this highlight reel to see just how effective Newton can be in the read-option scheme)

It’s not entirely clear if that call for a move away from the read-option scheme ever took hold though. Newton’s designed rushes dropped from five per game in Weeks 1-7 to 4.8 in Weeks 8-17.

Newton averaged 29.3 pass attempts in the first half of the year, and 31.2 thereafter. Though it’s understood that the pass is a vital part of the read-option, the Panthers use of designed runs hardly changed in the second half of the season. Neither did Newton’s weekly pass attempts. His fantasy production via the impromptu scramble didn’t fluctuate much either. It’s fair to question whether the team committed to a new offensive identity, and whether that had anything to do with Newton’s second half dominance.

See the below table (created by master number cruncher Rich Hribar) for a game-by-game breakdown of Newton’s 2012 rushing production.

CAM12

Shift or no shift, Newton roasted defenses in the second half of the season, finishing as fantasy’s top quarterback from Weeks 8-17, outscoring Drew Brees by 15 fantasy points and Aaron Rodgers by an eye-popping 33 points.

Some will point to the murderer’s row of defenses the Panthers faced in September and October as a primary reason for Newton’s early-season struggles. Newton’s stellar November and December, this crowd says, can be at least partly attributed to the lousy defenses Carolina faced in the latter half of the season. Newton ate them alive.

Whether or not you buy this argument, the Panthers use of designed quarterback runs should beg the question: have we truly seen a committed turning away from the read-option — or the designed quarterback run — in Carolina? Do we know what that looks like? Do we fully understand the fantasy ramifications of such a change in offensive philosophy?

No matter the answers to these questions, I’d be hard pressed to move Newton out of the second tier of my quarterback rankings. He’s cracked the 250-passing yard mark 12 times in his first two pro seasons, with a completion percentage of 63 percent – not stellar, but not entirely worrisome, in my view.

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