On Sunday, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made it clear he is unhappy with the way he has been officiated, and the numbers prove he has a point. Newton hasn't drawn an accepted roughing the passer penalty since the 2014 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. And while Newton is the most contacted quarterback in the NFL over the past two seasons because of designed runs and scrambles, he isn't even getting the calls when he's a traditional passer.
Newton has endured 59 hits inside the pocket over the past 1½ seasons, the ninth-highest number in the league. And yet, notable quarterbacks who have been hit a similar number of times have gotten far more calls over that span -- Drew Brees (10 roughing the passer calls), Tom Brady (five), Jameis Winston (five), Aaron Rodgers (four), Russell Wilson (three) and Matt Ryan (two).
Sure, some quarterbacks such as Brady, Rodgers and Winston will embellish these hits and sell the penalty on contact. That's part of the act. But similar to Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger, Newton's rare size for the position (he's listed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds) often leads to officials treating him less like a quarterback when he's inside the pocket.
Need proof? Let's look at some examples of roughing calls that were blatantly missed on Newton and compare those hits to some that were flagged with a few of the top names at the position.
Blow to the head/neck inside of the pocket
In the Week 1 opener versus the Denver Broncos, Newton took some serious hits from Wade Phillips' defense. And that did create some conversation about how the league can do more to protect Newton when he is inside of the pocket.
Again, I'm not talking about designed runs or scrambles. When Newton tucks the ball down, he knows he won't get any special treatment from the officials. But when he is dropping back to pass, Newton should be officiated the same as any other quarterback, with an emphasis on protecting passers from late hits and blows to the head/neck area.
Here's an example from that Week 1 matchup with Broncos outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett contacting Newton's helmet after the ball was released:
With Barrett following through to rake down on the arm of Newton (a technique taught to pass-rushers at every level), he makes contact to the side of the helmet. By rule, that should be called. What really stands out from this play? With referee Gene Steratore in clean view of the contact, Barrett is still permitted to wrangle Newton's neck, with no flag being thrown.
The comp: Tom Brady
Let's take a look at how officials treated Brady in Week 3 last season, when the quarterback's helmet/face mask gets contacted on an inside the pocket throw:
Jaguars defensive lineman Jared Odrick is running an inside pressure stunt here. And like all defenders, he's taught to get a hand up when you can't get home to the quarterback. That still creates an opportunity to disrupt the throw or to bat the ball down. However, Odrick follows through and makes contact to Brady's helmet/face mask. That's football, but it's still a clear violation of the rules. And, unlike Newton, Brady gets the call.
Hit below the knees
When quarterbacks plant their front foot to throw, they have to be protected. We are talking about serious knee and ankle injuries when defenders go low on contact or chop down through the thigh boards of quarterbacks in the pocket. This rule is in place for a reason.
During the Panthers' Week 8 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Newton took a shot below the knees from Calais Campbell that looked nasty -- and illegal -- in real time. This is the hit that had Newton so riled up after the game:
When we watch this play again, two things are clear: Campbell was not pushed into Newton by a blocker, which would have negated a penalty; and Campbell goes below the knees on contact. That puts Newton in an adverse position when he releases the ball. Think of the stress being put on his knee when he is folded back. As the quarterback said after the game: "I could have torn an ACL. That was the breaking point for me." This was an easy call to make, and the officials whiffed again.
The comp: Aaron Rodgers
The initial contact from Ansah is a little higher when compared with Campbell, but we are seeing the same action on the wrap/finish from the Lions' defensive end. And just like Newton, Rodgers is in a position where his knee/ankle is at risk. He gets folded under and is lucky to escape without a busted-up knee. But the difference here is that Rodgers gets the call, as he should, according to the rules.
Helmet to the chest
We've all seen quarterbacks get calls that straddle the line between legal and illegal. And as a former defensive player, I always felt quarterbacks would, more often than not, get the benefit of the doubt. The hit below -- levied last season by former Giants defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins on Newton -- falls within that grey area. Personally, I think this is good football and a legal blow. Jenkins avoided contact to the quarterback's head/neck and used his pads to deliver a blow to Newton's shoulder/midsection:
A big hit? No doubt. Jenkins does drop the crown of his helmet a bit on contact, but with Newton opening his chest to throw the ball, the Giants defensive tackle is in the proper position to deliver a shot to the target zone.
But you and I both know that a ton of quarterbacks of Newton's stature get borderline calls like this, especially ones that look so violent at full speed.
The comp: Russell Wilson
Last season, Wilson took a shot from Rams defensive end Robert Quinn in the season-opener that was in that same grey area:
You could argue that Quinn is too high on contact, but he is targeting the shoulder pad of Wilson as the quarterback releases the ball. I see this as a clean hit, with a wrap on contact. But as we so often see, Wilson gets the superstar treatment from the official watching on. Quinn gets dinged for roughing the passer on a hit that looked pretty similar to the one Newton took versus the Giants.
In today's league, helmet-to-helmet contact is almost an automatic call. We see it every Sunday with wide receivers and defensive backs on throws in the middle of the field. Defenders have been forced to adjust and lower the target zone.
The helmet-to-helmet emphasis usually gets ratcheted up to another level when a quarterback is on the other end of the blow. But Newton got no such treatment on this Von Miller strip/sack in Super Bowl 50:
Miller wins on the edge and has a clear path to Newton. But instead of lowering his target zone and going for the strip, Miller leads with his helmet and makes clear contact to the head of Newton. In real time, I didn't really notice it given the magnitude of this play. Miller gets the ball out, and the Broncos recover it in the end zone to push their lead to 10-0 over the Panthers in the first quarter. It's a heck of an all-around play from Miller to win off the edge and get the ball out. But when we go back and focus on how the league is officiating Newton, this is a bad miss for the league on the game's biggest stage.
The comp: Aaron Rodgers
In Week 15 last season, Rodgers took a helmet-to-helmet shot from Cardinals defensive back Jerraud Powers. The crown of the helmet drops and Powers make contact with Rodgers' headgear/face mask:
With Rodgers' helmet coming off at the end of his play, the refs are going to throw the flag. Even without seeing the initial hit, that sight alone is going to draw a penalty on Powers. But this goes back to the discussion on Newton. We can say that the Powers hit is more violent, and he catches some of the face mask on contact. Maybe that makes is a more clear call for the refs before the Packers' quarterback loses his lid on the turf. But as Rodgers gets another call, Newton is left to wonder why the league isn't giving him the same protection as the rest of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.