The 2011 season precipitated so many of the changes that have become familiar in the NFL today. This week, The Ringer goes back in time to trace the lineage of the league’s offensive boom.
When the Panthers selected Cam Newton with the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft, the Heisman-winning playmaker broke the mold for historical quarterback archetypes. In addition to becoming just the third Black quarterback taken with the draft’s top pick (joining Michael Vick and JaMarcus Russell), Newton combined a defensive-end-like build with incredible speed and power as a runner―traits he’d leaned on at Auburn while helming the type of option-heavy spread scheme the league had yet to fully embrace. That’s why, despite his extraordinary skill set, his well-earned accolades, and the fact he’d just carried the Tigers to a national championship, Newton had no shortage of doubters when he came into the league.
Newton wasted little time in answering his critics, though. He put together a record-setting rookie campaign that helped usher in a new era of offensive football in the NFL. With his standout 2011 performance, the uniquely talented signal-caller prompted shifts in both how teams value dual-threat quarterbacks and how they build schemes around their young franchise players. Ten years later, the ripple effects are clear. Here’s a look back on the ways that Newton’s rookie season offered a glimpse into the future of the quarterback position.
For most of the league’s history, rookie quarterbacks have struggled to keep their heads above water as they learn the playbook, memorize new terminology, and adapt to both the speed and complexity of the NFL. Even the simplest tasks can take time to master, like team-specific techniques around lining up under center or handing off to a running back. And the discrepancies between those fundamentals have historically been amplified when that rookie signal-caller has come to the NFL from a college spread offense scheme, as Newton did. But in a surprise twist—especially considering Newton’s background as a one-year starter at the Division I level and his history running spread, option-based offenses—Newton hit the ground running in Carolina. He found almost instant success both as a passer and runner, a feat that was that much more impressive considering he did it despite a lockout-shortened offseason program.
In his first start, Cam set a new modern-era record for a rookie quarterback, passing for 422 yards on a 24-of-37 passing line. He threw two touchdowns and a pick while adding 18 yards and a touchdown on the ground in a 28-21 loss to the Cardinals, showing off a little bit of everything he would bring to the table in an eye-opening performance. And he proved it was no fluke the next week, passing for over 400 yards in his second career game.
Newton continued to dazzle all year. He had his rookie moments, for sure; there were areas in which he’d need to develop over time (decision making and accuracy, primarily), but his final line on the year was eye-popping. He threw for 4,051 yards, good for 10th most in the NFL and a new rookie record, with 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, while adding 706 yards and a ridiculous 14 touchdowns on the ground. Newton’s 14 rushing touchdowns were, and remain, a record for the quarterback position.
With Newton as a force multiplier behind center, the Panthers finished the 2011 season with an 18.2 percent mark in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA―fourth best in the NFL and a 50.1-percentage-point difference from the team’s negative-31.9 mark in 2010, the largest single-season improvement in offensive DVOA since at least 1986, by a lot. Unsurprisingly, and deservedly, Newton was named Rookie of the Year.
Newton’s success as a rookie can be attributed in part, of course, to the fact that he’s just really talented. But the way in which the Panthers approached that season has served as a paradigm shift for how teams handle their rookie quarterbacks. The Panthers didn’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole with Newton, who may have floundered had he been forced to adapt to a pure pro-style offense. Instead, Carolina borrowed plays and concepts from the Auburn playbook, helping to smooth Newton’s transition from college to the pros by running more up-tempo looks, more no-huddle plays, and letting Newton line up frequently in familiar shotgun looks.
The Panthers upped the rate at which they ran out of the shotgun in 2011 by 23 percentage points compared to the year prior, lining up in those looks a league-high 57 percent of the time. That strategy paid dividends: According to the 2012 Football Outsiders Almanac, the difference between Carolina’s offensive DVOA in shotgun (34.9 percent) and in under-center looks (negative-1.6 percent) that season was the largest in the NFL.
The league took note of what the Panthers were doing. Washington took a similar tack when it drafted Robert Griffin III in 2012, as Ringer colleague Kevin Clark broke down this week, borrowing familiar concepts from Baylor’s playbook to help the rookie quarterback adapt to the pros. Over the years, teams have increasingly borrowed so-called college schemes and sprinkled them into their offenses to help make young quarterbacks more comfortable―and thus play faster and more freely―early in their careers.
That was the root of what the Panthers did with Newton in 2011, when they decided that they were going to let the athletic big-play creator simply be himself. That was particularly true when it came to the team’s run game, where Newton brought a rare combination of size, elusiveness, and a fullback’s mentality as a runner. The 6-foot-5, 248-pound quarterback averaged a league-best (and team-record) 5.6 yards per carry that season, confounding defenses with a combination of designed quarterback runs, like these:
And explosive, demoralizing scrambles like these:
The Panthers loved to call Newton’s number as a short-yardage and goal-line finisher, too. The team utilized him on QB power runs, where he’d follow his blockers right up the gut and dare opposing defenses to stop him. Newton converted 10 out of the 10 times he was asked to carry the ball when he needed 3 or fewer yards for a first down, per Football Outsiders, and his goal-line leaps into the end zone quickly became one of his signature plays.
Newton has since cemented himself not only as one of the greatest running quarterbacks in league history, but—in my mind, at least—as the best red zone player ever. That is, in large part, because the Panthers embraced Newton’s dual-threat skill set from the get-go, building their entire identity around it. The Panthers were far and away the most effective rushing team in the league in 2011, finishing first in yards per carry (5.4), touchdowns (26), and DVOA.
Newton was, and remains, more than just a runner, though, and his ability to create plays with both his arm and his legs helped bring about a shift in what the league looks for at the quarterback position. That didn’t happen overnight, though. Even after putting together one of the most memorable and impressive rookie seasons on record, Newton’s doubters emerged undeterred during his second season. A now-familiar refrain that “the league has figured him out” caught on, and the idea that coaches would somehow solve the problems that dual-threat quarterbacks create continued to be a talking point over the next few years when players like Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and a handful of others emerged as carriers of the torch. Hell, there’s even talk this week about how “this might be the year that everybody figures out Lamar Jackson.” That reminds me of when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said that he was looking forward to “eliminating” the read-option. That was in 2013.
Ultimately, the ability to operate from the pocket is still, and probably always will be, the most important variable the league’s decision-makers consider at the quarterback position. But Newton’s incredible rookie season pushed teams to further embrace the untapped benefits a running quarterback can provide. Wilson, Kaepernick, Dak Prescott, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Jackson—the list of quarterbacks who can dominate with both their arms and their legs is growing. The college game is producing more quarterbacks who can do it all; Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields each offer scintillating skill sets as both passers and runners. Newton, meanwhile, may still be capable of giving opposing defenses headaches as he heads into his 11th season. The veteran quarterback struggled mightily throwing from the pocket last year, thanks in part to the effects of a prior shoulder injury and a tough bout with COVID-19. But he’s now healthy, and has looked sharp this preseason. He seems to hold a slim lead over Mac Jones as the presumptive starter for the Patriots.
Newton wasn’t the NFL’s first dual-threat quarterback, but he did serve as a shining example for the type of ceiling those players can bring. As a rookie in 2011, Newton offered a glimpse into the future of quarterbacking: a player who could literally do it all, a player who could do things we’d never seen before.