The Power of a Star

Take a look at any Super Bowl contender; they’ve all got one thing in common. No, it’s not a great defense–the 14-2 Patriots gave up the eighth most yardage and Peyton Manning’s division champion Colts gave up the tenth most points. Could it be a  great coach? No, Norv Turner somehow wins 10 games every year and the Eagles always manage to do well despite Andy Reid’s horrific clock management. The answer is simple: you need a star quarterback.

The quarterback is without a doubt the most important position in all of pro sports. No position is quintessential in the NBA–The Lakers manage fine without a point guard, the Heat are playing great without a center, and the Bulls first in the East without a shooting guard. Baseball is even less star driven. But in the NFL, you can’t win without a bona fide star under center.

The best six teams record-wise were the Patriots, Falcons, Steelers, Ravens, Saints, and Bears. No surprise, they all have superstar level quarterbacks. Tom Brady. Matt Ryan. Ben Roethlisberger. Joe Flacco. Drew Brees. Jay Cutler. Sure, Flacco and Cutler might not be on the level of a Rodgers or Manning, but they can make the play when the game is on the line.

Teams with great quarterbacks will find a way to succeed; it’s just how the NFL works in this new era. Peyton and Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Mike Vick, and Josh Freeman led their team to 10 wins and Philip Rivers led his injury riddled Chargers to within one game of the playoffs and a 9-7 record.

Still not convinced? Let’s check out the top of the draft order: Carolina, Denver, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Arizona. We have Jimmy Clausen and the 32nd ranked pass offense, the Tim Tebow experiment, a quarterback who played at Harvard, a washed up Carson Palmer, and a quarterback by committee that finished a solid 31st in passing. Not great.

If you want to win four to seven games every year, you can go ahead with Alex Smith and Chad Henne and hope for the best. But if you really want to contend for a title, you need an upgrade at quarterback. You need a franchise-type player.

There are four types of teams on the search for a star quarterback: those who have their guy, those who think they have their guy, those who are biding time waiting to find their guy, and those who are completely lost looking for their guy.

Franchise QB

Atlanta
Baltimore
Chicago
Dallas
Detroit
Green Bay
Indianapolis
New England
New Orleans
New York Giants
New York Jets
Pittsburgh
San Diego
St. Louis
Tampa Bay

We Think We’ve Got Our Guy

Joe Webb is not the answer to any question.

Joe Webb is not the answer to any question.

Denver
Cleveland
Houston
Kansas City
Philadelphia

Biding Time

Buffalo
Cincinnati
Jacksonville
Miami
Oakland

Child, Please!

Arizona
Carolina
Minnesota
San Francisco
Seattle
Tennessee
Washington

Roughly half the teams in the league have a franchise quarterback, and their record reflects the importance of having a star QB. The fifteen teams averaged over 10 wins last season. Teams who think they’ve got their guy averaged only 7 wins, teams biding their time averaged 6 wins, and those who were just utterly lost averaged a mere 5 wins. No team that lacked any semblance of a franchise QB had a winning record.

No longer can you win in the NFL with simply a great defense. No longer can you grind your way through a season and win it all. You need to be able to just outscore the other team. Yes, the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV mostly thanks to Ray Lewis and their great defense, but that was eleven years ago–so long ago that they might as well be the ’85 Bears.

There’s a great reason why teams with the Bradys and Mannings of the world are perpetually in Super Bowl contention: in this day and age offense reigns supreme. Once you have a star quarterback, you’re set for the next decade. And when you don’t, you turn into the Panthers.

So here sit the Panthers in the enviable position of owning the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. They are in desperate need of a competent quarterback. But at the same time, they need help at defensive tackle, defensive end, cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, and, and, and… And to make matters worse, there’s no clear-cut, safe quarterback at the top of the draft board. Andrew Luck would have been their guy, but Luck made the strange decision of turning down nearly $50 million guaranteed to return to Stanford.

For the Panthers, there are only five players worth considering: Patrick Peterson, Marcel Dareus, A.J. Green, Blaine Gabbert, and that Cam Newton guy. Peterson may be the most talented player in the draft, Dareus fits one of their most pressing needs, A.J. Green would be perfect for replacing Steve Smith, and Gabbert has all of the makings to be a productive quarterback. But there’s only one right choice for the top pick. And it’s Cam Newton.

It’s not that I think any of the other players are bad. They just don’t make sense in the Panthers’ situation. Drafting a corner or wide receiver this early doesn’t make much sense, and D-Tackle isn’t as pressing of a need as quarterback.

And it’s not that I don’t like Blaine Gabbert. I just don’t see him as a big difference maker. I’ll give him this: there’s nothing to hate about his game. He’s smart, has great size, played in a big-time conference, has a nice arm, and is fairly mobile. But at the same time, no one aspect of his game shines. He doesn’t jump off the screen when you watch him, and he didn’t dominate his competition. I wouldn’t give him the Winning Gene. But boy does Cam Newton shine.

Few players are as inspiring as Cam Newton. Plain and simple.

Few players are as inspiring as Cam Newton. Plain and simple.

There was no college player nearly as dominant, captivating, and electric as Cam Newton in 2010. He can beat you with his rocket arm, his elusive speed, or just run you over with 6’5″, 248 lbs of fury. He dominated the best conference in the league and beat six top 20 teams in the process. Even most casual of college football fans couldn’t help but notice how special #2 was when he played. But despite all of his accolades and skill, people still seem to focus on past missteps when analyzing him as a potential prospect.

Yes, Cam allegedly stole a laptop. Yes, he may have been caught cheating twice. Yes, he may have sold his services to the highest bidder. But you know what? That didn’t stop him from being the best player in college football. He won the NJCAA Championship in his only year at Blinn College with an 11-1 record, and he ran the table with a 14-0 record in Auburn’s championship season. The man wins games. The man puts up stats. What more could you ask from a player?

There’s something infectious about Cam Newton’s personality. He’s got that great smile that reassures you that he’s got your back no matter how dire the situation. And whenever he steps into a room, he commands everyone’s respect. Newton is the very definition of a leader–willing to do anything to lead his team to victory.

The one leg up Newton has on the rest of the draft class is that he has the potential to be a star. He’s got unlimited potential, given that he comes with tons of risk. New 49ers coach poured praise on the young quarterback, saying that he “(hadn’t) seen upside like with this guy in probably the last 10 years.” But will he put in the full effort necessary? Can he maintain focus if he plays for a bad team? I believe so. He’s just that special of a player.

Newton is so special and so uniquely formed that I find him nearly impossible to compare to any other player. He’s not Michael Vick. Vick is a runner first, and Newton can absolutely run over defenders. He’s not JaMarcus Russell. Russell had a poor mindset and was purely a strong armed gunman. He’s not Vince Young. Young doesn’t have the accuracy or maturity that Newton put on display at Auburn. We can’t get stuck in this racial stereotype.

But if I had to pick one or two players he most reminds me of, they’d have to be Ben Roethlisberger and Josh Freeman. These three quarterbacks have huge frames (6’5″ 241, 6’6″ 240, 6’5″ 248), cannon arms, and are mobile in the pocket. They won’t necessarily put up the biggest numbers, but when the game is on the line, they deliver. They’re the type of player you want in your foxhole. And Cam Newton is the man for the Panthers.

I’ll admit that I loved the Panthers’ selection of Jimmy Clausen last year. But that turned out to be a big mistake. Clausen is an arrogant, entitled player who doesn’t lead well or know how to lead his team to victory. It’s easy to get the feeling that he thinks he deserves to be handed the keys to his dad’s brand new Caddy–he deserves it because he’s Jimmy Clausen and Jimmy Clausen gets what Jimmy Clausen wants. But that’s not how things work in the NFL.

Cam has had to work hard at every level he’s played. He had to prove that Auburn was more than just a top 25 team. He had to prove that he was more than just a good college quarterback. And you’d better bet that when he gets drafted number one overall, he’ll prove that he’s more than just a number one pick.

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