— We have read the Cam Newton scouting report before. He's an outstanding athlete with a live arm, great production and lots of wins, but there’s a big asterisk — he executed a spread offense in college, so he may not be mechanically ready for the NFL.
Vince Young arrived with the same scouting report. So did Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, JaMarcus Russell, Colt McCoy, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and many others.
Most college quarterbacks run spread offenses. Blaine Gabbert of Missouri, Colin Kaepernick of Nevada and Andy Dalton of TCU join Newton as top 2011 prospects who ran "gimmicky" attacks full of options, empty backfields and pistol formations.
So why are so many experts nitpicking Newton's mechanics? Spread formations are old news to NFL scouts, and with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning taking more than half of their snaps from the shotgun, it's not like today's prospect is going to enter the NFL and suddenly take 30 snaps per game from an I-formation. Newton has an excellent arm and great legs. Who cares about the offense he ran?
As it turns out, not all spread-option offenses are created equal. Auburn's system — and the habits Newton has picked up while running that system — have made Newton more mechanically unsound than most spread quarterbacks, including those who join him in this year's draft class.
Spread options and zone reads
Saying a quarterback ran a "spread" offense is like saying he ran a West Coast offense. It's such a general term that it is almost meaningless. Gabbert typically lined up in an empty backfield. Dalton sometimes had three "backs" (usually a mix of backs and receivers) surrounding him before the snap. Kaepernick worked from the "pistol" formation: a five-yard shotgun with a back behind him. All had varying degrees of defense-reading responsibility. None of them had anything approaching Newton's 264 rushing attempts.
Each variation on the spread option has its own terminology, tendencies and techniques, some of which are very NFL-like. Auburn's offense is much more run-oriented than the systems used by Mizzou or TCU. It has more in common with Nevada's offense, though at times it looks more like an old-fashioned triple-option running offense than anything else.
Figure 1 shows a bread-and-butter passing play for Auburn. Newton takes the shotgun snap, fakes a handoff to his running back, then turns and fires a short "bubble screen" to a receiver, sophomore Emory Blake (No. 80) in this example. The fake handoff and the threat of a Newton run freezes the safeties and the linebackers, and the other receivers to Blake's side "stalk block" their defenders. Blake is left with one defender to beat in the open field, often a safety aligned 10 to 15 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Auburn ran variations on this play at least five times per game; they ran them five times in the first half of the BCS Championship game alone! That should set off alarms in your head right away.
Newton attempted only 20 passes per game, and a huge percentage of them were glorified option pitches that even Brent Musburger called "long handoffs!" Newton's rushing ability made these quick passes so effective — defenders could not race out to stop the receiver until they knew Newton was not handing off or keeping the football — but this is not the kind of play NFL teams use as anything more than a wrinkle.
Several spread option teams have bubble-screen plays similar to the one in Diagram 1, but there's a bigger issue. Figure 2 shows a close-up of the typical Newton fake handoff. Newton takes the snap and crouches forward, often taking a step with his right foot to "open up" his body to his running back. He then "rides" the back for a step or two, both of them moving toward the line of scrimmage together. Sometimes, of course, Newton hands the ball off. More often, he pulls the ball back and either runs off tackle (a "zone-read" play) or steps back to pass. Even when he doesn't play-fake, Newton often leans and jab-steps forward to threaten the defense with his rushing ability.
Newton's footwork works for the Auburn system, but it works against the timing and pinpoint precision of NFL offenses. Newton delivers many of his bubble screen passes while drifting backward or toward his receiver, or he just pushes the ball without setting his feet. If Newton tries to deliver passes to the sidelines with sloppy footwork in the NFL, he will discover just how quickly cornerbacks can jump routes.
None of the other quarterbacks in this year's draft class uses the "crouch and ride" technique like Newton does. And while every spread offense provides plenty of safe throws, no other prospect threw as high a percentage of bubble screens as Newton.
Big plays, big problems
If Newton did nothing but run and throw screens he would not be among the top prospects in the draft. Newton completed quite a few deep passes, and he demonstrated a powerful arm and deft touch on long throws. Those passes, while impressive, often showed just how much protection Newton got from Auburn's system.
Figure 3 shows how short passes like the one diagrammed in Figure 1 can be used to set up big plays. This time, runner-receiver Mario Fannin (No. 27) is Newton's target. The play starts just like most Auburn plays: a shotgun snap and a fake option handoff, with Newton crouching and riding. Fannin's sideline route even looks a little like the route Blake ran in Figure 1. But Fannin is really running a "wheel." Auburn's coaches saw that the defense had two deep safeties, meaning the opponent was either in Cover-2 zone or in man coverage with deep safety help.
In either case, Fannin's wheel route is the perfect call. In this example, the defense was in man coverage, meaning a linebacker had to chase Fannin up the sideline: a total mismatch.
Auburn used a play similar to the one shown to score an important touchdown in the BCS championship against Oregon, with Blake making the catch from the slot position. They were exciting plays, but what did Newton actually do? He caught the snap, made a fake, turned and threw. His feet were not set, he had no reads to make, and his receivers were wide open. These were "scheme" touchdowns, and the Auburn tape is full of them. What's rare are examples of Newton taking the snap, scanning the defense and checking down to a second or third receiver. When in doubt, Newton usually ran.
Again, every spread quarterback benefits from "scheme" passes. But few are as dependent on them as Newton. Dalton, Kaepernick and Gabbert had to make many more decisions at the line of scrimmage. Even Vince Young had fewer catch-fake-throw opportunities at Texas than Newton had last year. Only one top prospect in the last decade was as system-dependent as Newton.
The Tebow factor
Tim Tebow, like Newton, became a BCS Champion and Heisman winner in an option-heavy offense that used his powerful running style to set up misdirection plays and deep passes. Like Newton, Tebow never had to make NFL-style reads, usually threw to wide-open receivers and left college a mechanical mess with a habit of shot-putting passes and doing crazy things with his feet while throwing.
Newton has a better arm than Tebow, and his throwing mechanics are better (he doesn't hop, for example). On the flip side, Tebow has unassailable work habits and left college with three years of major college starting experience. Newton arrives with one year of big-time experience, a lifetime's worth of scandal allegations and lots of blurry tape from Blinn College.
Tebow made a late splash with the Broncos last year, but he also completed just 50 percent of his rookie passes, and his touchdown totals (rushing and receiving) were inflated by use as an end-zone specialist. The jury is still out on him, and the most run-heavy spread quarterbacks of the last decades have had trouble finding their footing. "No college QB who played in the 'Run Option' offense has developed into a good starting NFL QB," Russ Lande wrote in his GM Jr. scouting guide. "See Alex Smith and Vince Young."
No matter how good Newton's arm, or how exciting his highlight reel, Smith and Young are the prospects he keeps company with — guys so propped up by their systems that it's hard to project their production to the pros.
Newton will be bucking the trend if he becomes an elite quarterback. Easy screens and catch-and-throw bombs only take you so far in the NFL.