Eagles-Panthers: On Newton's 2017 and Laws of Football Gravity

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David Malinsky

Thursday, October 12, 2017 1:41 PM GMT

Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 1:41 PM GMT

Is it proper to discount those early-season bad showings by Cam Newton? … Those Lane Johnson In/Out numbers may not be all that big of a deal. … Is there a rational explanation for those Jim Mora Jr./Rich Rodriguez outcomes?

Point Blank – October 12, 2017

Yesterday the focus here was on the process of attaching different weighting scales to different games in order to maximize what the numbers are trying to detail. One of the prime reasons for that timing was the result of some unusual game flows from this past weekend, but also in terms of digging inside the Eagles-Panthers matchup in prime time this evening. This time we start from the top down: How do we properly address Cam Newton’s 2017 season?

Players have good games and bad games, it is an absolute of sport. In 2017, Newton has had good games and bad games, but the way that they were clustered offers us a path over which we might be able to do some necessary tweaking to the numbers. Has this really been a case of him simply not being ready when the season began, and now the laws of Newton’s own performance gravity have the numbers returning to where they should be?

I thought Newton was awful in Carolina’s opening win at San Francisco, but he didn’t have to be very good for the Panthers to win that game. The ensuing two weeks weren’t any better, but then came a pair of dynamic performances, more than 300 passing yards each game in leading to wins at New England and Detroit, with six TD passes vs. only one interception. And much as the bad numbers of the early games were backed by an eye test that saw how uncomfortable he was, the eye test from the past two weeks certified the positive numbers.

To showcase the flow for dramatic effect, here are the Newton yards-per-pass counts through the first five games:

6.8
7.1
6.4
10.9
10.8

To set the last two into a better perspective, Newton’s single-game passer rating at New England was #7 on his career list, and at Detroit it was #4. But instead of this merely being a roller-coaster ride that can happen to an NFL QB, should the case be made that the early performances merit lesser weighting because he wasn’t ready?

There is a foundation for it. Newton missed much of training camp with a shoulder injury, and the Panthers weren’t overly communicative about it, which made for difficult assessments from a distance. All that was available to the handicapper were his showings on the field. What strikes me now is how matter-of-fact the turn in his play appears to be from some of the key cogs at Carolina.

Let’s start with Ron Rivera: “He’s gotten healthier and that’s the truth. I’ve been saying this since we broke camp – it’s just a matter of him getting back to the opportunity to improve his arm strength. ... He really hadn’t had a training camp. Those first few games were really kind of his training camp and he was getting himself back into it. Now he’s had a couple of really good weeks. I think that’s a huge plus for him.”

And from LB Thomas Davis: “We had a lot of people who were counting him out at the beginning of the season – really because we kind of limited some of the things he was capable of doing. But now you see him going out and running the ball again. His arm strength is back. And he’s putting the ball on the money.”

It is important to understand that there are two sides to this – it isn’t just a matter of discounting the Caroline offensive showing for those early games if Newton truly wasn’t healthy; we also have discount the credit given to the defenses for those games.

For now I am inclined to believe that is the proper protocol, yet the level the Panthers passing game has performed at the past two weeks is also not something they will maintain. Getting 175 yards out of five completions to tight ende Ed Dickson is not a part of his long-term skill set, although he may be able to fill more of Greg Olsen’s role than I first thought. If nothing else, that does give opposing DCs something they have to prepare for.

There is a flip side to tonight’s matchup that also calls for a deeper dive. …

 Does the Lane Johnson absence in 2017 mean what it did in 2016?

Johnson is a key cog in the Philadelphia OL, a former first-round pick who has had more buzz created about a right tackle this week than usual, once it became clear that he was unlikely to pass the concussion protocol in time to be able to play (Johnson did not even make the trip to Carolina).

Here is the gist: over the past two seasons the Eagles are 9-2 when Johnson plays, Carson Wentz having a 99.9 passer rating, with 20 TD passes vs. only five interceptions. In the 10 games that Johnson missed in 2016 due to suspension, it was a 2-8 slide in which Wentz threw twice as many INTs (12) as he had TDs (6). That is pretty dramatic stuff, but it is also more impact than a player at Johnson’s position should have.

Part of the 2016 decline had to do with the timing in which he was out, including one stretch of five games in which the Eagles went up against the Cowboys (13-3), Giants (11-5), Falcons (11-5), Seahawks (10-5-1) and Packers (10-6). Only one of the 10 teams they faced without Johnson had a losing record, yet at 6-9-1 the Bengals were also not pushovers (they dumped Philly 32-14).

There is also the matter of Johnson’s replacement at the time being rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a fifth-round draft pick who clearly wasn’t ready to be an NFL starter. But now Vaitai has had a fair amount of seasoning, and he played well after Johnson went down on Sunday. Is the absence of Johnson a lesser factor now than it was in 2016?

Let’s go to Wentz, in the aftermath of the win over Arizona: “We didn’t miss a beat. Big V stepped up, and it seemed like he did a great job. … We know Lane’s a heck of a football player. Hopefully, he can recover and be ready to go. We’ll see what happens, but at the same time, Big V’s had tons of valuable experience and reps last year, and he got a ton better, so we feel solid if Lane’s not ready to go. We know Big V will be ready.”

I don’t have anything leading me to reach into pocket this evening, but that still makes this matchup a prime opportunity to learn something that can be used going forward.

 

I still don't know what to make of Jim Mora Jr. vs. Rich Rodriguez

One of the most intriguing matchups on the Saturday board is the UCLA trip to Arizona. There is the fascination of the follow-up for Arizona QB Khalil Tate, who was detailed in the Monday edition, going up against a defense that should allow him a lot of breathing room. There are 129 teams at the FBS level, and the Bruins are #128 in rush yards per game allowed and rushing yards per attempt (Tulsa the only team to rate worse in both categories).

I can also add some details from Tate’s breakout game against Colorado, regarding that special burst he had in the open field, something that was not in evidence in 2016. Yes, Tate was a nervous freshman last fall, including a complete deer-in-the-headlights disaster when he got a start vs. USC. But here is another difference, and it is why the deeper digging is so necessary in this endeavor: Tate is playing at 208 pounds now, compared to 222 a year ago. That extra gear of quickness from carrying less weight showed last Saturday night in Boulder.

The matchups call for the Wildcats to have a lot of offensive success, so with the line moving from an opener of Arizona -1.5 over to +1, it should spark some interest, right? Not necessarily, because there is this:

2012 UCLA* (-3) 66-10
2013 UCLA (+2) 31-26
2014 UCLA* (-6.5) 17-7
2015 UCLA (-1) 56-30
2016 UCLA* (-11) 45-24

I have an asterisk next to the Bruins when they were the home team. Why have I focused on the last five seasons? Because that is the tenure for both Jim Mora Jr. in Westwood and Rich Rodriguez in Tucson. It is a rather shocking domination, Mora besting his coaching rival by 118 points on the scoreboard and 98.5 vs. the closing line, and the latter is the biggest point-spread domination of any program vs. any other across that span.

I don’t have an explanation for it. There isn’t anything all that unusual about the tactical matchup that I can see, especially with Mora having changed both his DC and his OC often since taking over in Westwood, (Jedd Fisch being the third guy running the offense for Josh Rosen in as many seasons). Often when I don’t have an explanation for an extreme cycle of events I will anticipate some regression, but might there be something legit here that I just haven’t found?

Those are the kind of dilemmas that get processed through the mind each week as the wagering board is broken down, and to hear some of that thinking out loud, there is House of Yards. …

 For your listening pleasure

Matt Landes and I are back for another session of talking football, talking betting, and talking beer. The NFL prime-time television games are included, in addition to Steelers-Chiefs and Utah-USC, along with the Beer of the Week and Best Bets.

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