-- Through eight weeks, the Carolina Panthers were 7-0 and Cam Newton ranked 27th out of 33 qualified quarterbacks in Total QBR. No, there was not an issue with the algorithm. (We checked!) The Panthers were simply winning because of their defense, which was bailing Newton out after a number of normally disastrous turnovers.
The thing is, Total QBR was not alone rating Newton near the bottom of the league -- he ranked even lower in passer rating (29th) and completion percentage (32nd) through eight weeks. Why was he higher in QBR? Well, the stat captures Newton's ability to make plays with his legs and scramble for first downs.
Since the start of Week 9, Newton is playing like an MVP candidate, and QBR has noticed. Only Russell Wilson -- recently anointed Bill Barnwell's second-half MVP -- has a higher QBR than Newton during that time (see chart). Accounting for the combination of Newton's efficiency (with QBR) and usage, no quarterback has been more valuable than Newton in the second half of the season, captured in a statistic called QB points above average.
Obviously, QBR is not the only statistic that has recognized Newton's improved play. In fact, any NFL fan following the Panthers would acknowledge that Newton is playing at another level in recent weeks.
Because QBR can be split in an number of ways, though, it allows us to dig deeper into how Newton is improving and why he is deserving of the MVP hype he has received.
Most would expect Newton's second-half resurgence to center around his running, but his improved play begins with his passing.
Since the start of Week 9, Newton has a 94.8 QBR on pass attempts, three points higher than any other quarterback in the league. Talk about a turnaround -- he ranked 30th in that stat in the first half of the season.
One major difference with Newton's passing his been his ability to stretch the field. Starting in Week 9, Newton has completed 57.4 percent of his passes thrown 15 yards or longer, which ranks second in the NFL behind Carson Palmer. Last week against Atlanta, Newton hit Ted Ginn Jr. for a 74-yard touchdown (28 air yards) and followed that up with 46-yard touchdown (33 air yards) six minutes later.
Those plays simply did not exist in the first half of the season. Newton had a lower completion percentage on all passes (54.2 percent) in the first eight weeks than he has on deep passes in the last six. He was nearly as likely to overthrow his receivers on those 15-plus-yard throws than complete a deep pass during that time. QBR accounts for the distance that a pass is thrown beyond the line of scrimmage, so deep completions are huge plays for the quarterback in the eyes of QBR.
Obviously the recent increase in big plays has contributed to Newton's success, but his ability to avoid negative plays may be an even bigger contributing factor to his higher Total QBR. In Carolina's first seven games, Newton had 19 action plays that ranked in the bottom 5 percent of plays this season in terms of QB expected points added (sixth most in the NFL). To put it bluntly, those were potential game-changing bad plays. In the past six weeks, though, Newton has 10 such plays and only two turnovers (both interceptions) in 259 action plays.
Newton is the midst of his best six-game stretch of his career, but anyone watching the games would recognize that QBR is simply matching what the world is seeing: Newton is playing like an MVP.