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Will NFL Defenses figure out RGIII like they "figured out" Cam Newton?

There is an article on NFL.com today by Steve Young, opining that an option-led offense is unsustainable in the NFL. His point, which I don't agree with, is that with history as a guide nobody has ever won with a pistol offense. (This is asinine, as it was true of every major offensive development until it wasn't, including the forward pass, and the West Coast Offense he played in under Bill Walsh--as Steve Young said, scheme can be a QB's best friend.) His other point is the normal "running quarterbacks get injured" trope, which is sensible and agreeable enough.

I don't much care about that.

In a comment, someone made the familiar point that NFL defenses adjust, evidenced by Cam Newton's alleged struggles this year:

Stop crying people, RG3 is good. Really good but what steve is saying is that defenses catch on quick. Example: Look at Cam Newton last year, now look at him this year. Big difference when the D catches on. All Steve is saying that the coach needs to make sure he doesn't try the same exact thing next year for RG3 because it wont be as successful. RG3 will be fine as long as Shannahan does what he needs to do.

I'm not sure that was what "steve" was saying at all, but let's set that aside. The belief that Cam Newton has been "figured out" is widespread, and not just among commenters at nfl.com. Cam Newton's alleged regression is a popular theme this year, and RGIII HATERS Y'ALL have already made the connection, asserting (prematurely) that he is destined for the same. The question is: The same what? Let's address the assumption.

Here are Cam Newton's passing statistics from the first two years, with 2012 averaged out over a 16 game season. Guess which is which:

Year X:

517 attempts, 310 completions for a 60 comp. %, 4,051 yards or 7.8 YPA, 21 TD/17 Int ratio, 3.3 int. %, QB Rating 84.5, QBR 55.04

Year Y:

473 attempts, 272 completions for a 57.5 comp. %, 3,910 yards or 8.3 YPA, 19 TD/13 Int ratio, 2.8 int. %, QB Rating 85.8, QBR 49.54

And the rushing statistics, similarly adjusting the shorter season:

Year X:

126 attempts, 706 yards 14 TDs, 5.6 YPA, 44.1 YPG

Year Y:

127 attempts, 699 yards 8 TDs, 5.5 YPA, 43.7 YPG

The remarkable thing is not a demonstrable regression but how eerily similar 2011 Cam Newton (Year X) and 2012 projected (Year Y) Cam Newton look. 2011 Cam Newton threw more interceptions, had a higher completion percentage, but fewer yards per attempt. He scored more rushing touchdowns, but didn't have statistically meaningful higher yards per attempt, or per game. If you are not a fan of traditional statistics, Football Outsiders shows no meaningful regression, either. His passing DVOA in 2011 was 0.8%, his DYAR was 404. By contrast, this year his passing DVOA is 1.6%, his DYAR 299, which means he's probably on pace to match or surpass last year's DYAR.

The main difference between "Cam Newton" in 2011 and Cam Newton in 2012 is that a team that got hot at the end of last year hasn't maintained that success, and quarterbacks shoulder a disproportional degree of the blame when seasons aren't going well (and a disproportional credit when they are).

Let's not forget that Carolina in 2011 had 3 wins after Week 12 last year, just like this year. The most glaring difference between this year's Carolina and last year isn't Cam Newton--he's nearly identical in both the passing and rushing game--but a significantly worse running game occasioned by regressions by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. In 2011 they both led Cam Newton in total rushing yards, were averaging 5.4 YPC each, boosting the team to a 150 RYPG average that year. This year Cam Newton is the leading rusher on the team, neither DeAngelo Williams nor Jonathan Stewart has topped 3.7 YPC, or 50 YPG, and the team is down to 112.8 RYPG. This squares with Football Outsiders' analysis. In 2011 Carolina had the 4th best offensive DVOA, ~ 15th in passing (13.8%) but 1st in rushing (32.1%, which is preposterously high). This year, Carolina has the 15th best offensive DVOA, improving slightly in passing (16.6% DVOA) but comically regressing in rushing offense (-2.6%, or 16th in the league).

Some, but not all of that drop, can be attributed to Cam Newton's lower efficiency (by FO's measure) at running the ball. (He has dropped from 14.5% rushing DVOA to 5.4% rushing DVOA--as pointed out, his passing DVOA is better in 2012). Newton's YPR have not changed, nor has his YPG. The real drop has been in Carolina's overall rushing game, probably attributable to offensive line collapse, although I haven't watched enough Carolina games to opine intelligently on that.

In any event, the comparisons between Cam Newton's scary-good rookie season, surpassed by RGIII's even scarier-rookie season, were inevitable. But analogizing to a Newtonesque regression is pointless, as it isn't at all obvious that such a regression has occurred. Factor in that RGIII has had to play this season without some of his best offensive weapons (Fred Davis and Pierre Garcon) and there are reasons to think that even if RGIII does "regress" a bit (which he should; his rookie campaign has been so spectacular he's statistically likely to regress towards the mean), the offense may yet improve. Better yet, a healthy defense will almost certainly make his job easier. Even if we ultimately miss out on the playoffs this year, there are a lot of reasons to think the Redskins are going into 2013 as playoff favorites, notwithstanding much hand-wringing comparisons between RGIII and Cam Newton's second years.

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