DraftHistory.com

Super Bowl 50 Could be a Blowout

By Chris Malumphy

No matter which team you're rooting for in Super Bowl 50, be it the Carolina Panthers or the Denver Broncos, everyone wants to see a good game. Our greatest hope is that it will be an exciting match decided in the last seconds by plays that will leave fans in awe and with players and referees able to leave the field with their heads held high.

Unfortunately, Sunday's match up has the distict possibility of being a blowout that will be decided early causing many of us to switch channels or only stick it out to see Rihanna, Cold Play and the commercials.

Although there is no sure thing, and teams often rise to the occasion, their are many indications that this game could be a serious mismatch. The Panthers enter the game as six point favorites. I suspect it should be much more. With their two playoff wins, Carolina is now 17-1. In both of those playoff games the Panthers had leads of over 30 points against strong teams: the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals. The Broncos two victories leave them at 14-4, but not able to be very proud about it. Denver beat New England in the AFC Championship game mostly due to a missed extra point. Even without wide receiver Antonio Brown and runnings Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, injured Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger clearly outplayed Denver's Peyton Manning for most of their divisional playoff game a week earlier. But the old pro came through in the clutch with a late touchdown pass and two point conversation. Nevertheless, if not for a fortuitous forced fumble by defensive back Bradley Roby on Pittsburgh's Fitzgerald Toussaint that was covered up by DeMarcus Ware, we'd probably be watching the Steelers this weekend.

This week's matchup against the Panthers won't be so easy for the Broncos. The Panthers sport one of the toughest defenses and the most prolific offense of the 2015 season with the team scoring 500 points overall. Most importantly, they have MVP quarterback Cam Newton who had his best season ever and is in his prime. Newton threw for 35 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions and a 99.4 QB rating despite the fact that his wide receivers are average at best. Just as importantly, Newton led all quarterbacks in rushing with 636 yards on 132 carries and 10 touchdowns. No player in the lineup on Sunday scored more touchdowns during the season or rushed for as many first downs as Newton. Only one player tied with him for touchdowns, teammate Ted Ginn Jr. As a comparison, the top touchdown maker for the Broncos was running back Ronnie Hillman with 7, but two Panthers, tight end Greg Olsen and running back Jonathan Stewart, scored just as many.

The Broncos scored a very pedestrian 350 points during the season which must be attributed in large part to lackluster quarterback play. In contrast to Newton, Peyton Manning is coming off the worst season of his otherwise illustrious NFL career. Manning threw only nine touchdown pass with 17 interceptions and finished with a QB rating of 67.9. Unlike Newton who has been poetry in motion all season, Manning is a still life, a boring one at that. Of all the starting quarterbacks in 2015, Manning had the fewest yards rushing: minus 6. Bronco backup quarterback Brock Osweiler outpaced Manning in nearly every statistical category this season. Nevertheless, Manning will get the start on Sunday. Unfortunately for the Broncos, his 67.9 QB rating is the worst of any Super Bowl starting quarterback since Tony Eason (67.5) started for New England Patriots 30 years ago in a 46-10 loss to the Chicago Bears following the 1985 season. Eason was replaced early in that game by teammate Steve Grogan. If Manning can't keep the Broncos in the game on Sunday, he might face the same fate with Osweiler waiting in the wings. On the bright side from the Broncos' point of view, Manning hasn't been the turnover machine he was earlier in the season and he has yet to through an interception thus far in the playoffs.

The Broncos have already been the losers in three of the five biggest blowouts in Super Bowl history. Denver lost to Washington 42–10 in Super Bowl XX following the 1987 season. Two years later they were pasted 55–10 by the San Francisco 49ers in the worst Super Bowl massacre ever. Super Bowl XLVIII following the 2013 season was little better with the Broncos falling to the Seattle Seahawks 43–8 in a game in which the first snap from center flew past Peyton Manning resulting in a safety,

For the Broncos to win, or even stay in the game for long, their defense will need to be superb. If Cam Newton is not harried mercilessly, all is lost. Newton is capable of picking a defense apart even with a below par group of wide receivers. He is also capable of hitting wide receiver Ted Ginn and tight end Greg Olsen for big yards at any time. Luckily, the Broncos have pass rushing talent to keep the pressure on with outstanding outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware leading the way aided by Derek Wolfe, Shaquil Barrett and Malik Jackson. But they must also keep Newton contained otherwise he will murder them with his running ability.

The Panthers have the advantage over the Broncos in most areas of play. Check out the individual stats below. The Panthers have the clear advantage in passing statistics. The running backs are fairly equal but Newton's superiority over the Denver quarterbacks in running the football gives the advantage to the Panthers in rushing. DeMaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders provide an advantage to Denver at wide receiver, but the Panthers Greg Olsen is superior to Owen Daniels at tight end. Denver might have an advantage in place kicking but Carolina is better at punting. The Panthers 500 points were the best in the league compared to the Broncos 350. Defensively both teams were tough with the Broncos allowing 296 points and the Panthers 308. The difference is less than a point per game: advantage none. The kickoff returners of both teams were comparable. The Broncos Omar Bolden is a dangerous punt returner, but he had only five returns all year, albeit with one going 83 yards for a touchdown. Ted Ginn Jr. returns many more balls and is equally dangerous, so advantage Panthers. The Carolina defense had a league best 24 interceptions compared to just 14 for Denver: advantage Panthers. But Denver sacked quarterbacks 52 times compared to 44 sacks by Carolina: advantage Broncos. Both teams forced 22 fumbles and Carolina recovered 15 fumbles versus 13 by Denver: advantage none.

For Denver to win, I think it will need to be a relatively low scoring game and the Broncos defense will need to force Cam Newton into multiple errors. I can't see Manning or Osweiler putting many points on the board against the Panther defense. If Manning is forced to pass downfield often, I expect the Panther ballhawks will have a big day. And while the Broncos led the league in sacks, I don't think they will be able to stop Newton from having a big game. Newton and the Panthers blew both the Seahawks and the Cardinals out of the water early in their games earlier in the playoffs. It is very possible that the Broncos might meet the same fate. This all leads to the sad conclusion that Peyton Manning's career could end on a down note. However, as it now stands, nothing is known for sure. That's why they play the game.

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Passing Statistics
Name Team Att Comp Pct Yds Avg TD TD
Pct
Ints Int
Pct
Sacked Pct
Sacked
QB
Rating
Cam NewtonPanthers49529659.838377.8357.1102.0336.399.4
Peyton ManningBroncos33119859.822496.892.7175.1164.667.9
Brock OsweilerBroncos27517061.819677.2103.662.2237.786.4
Derek AndersonPanthers6466.7366.000.000.000.082.6
Advantage: Panthers

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Rushing Statistics
Name Team Rushes Yds Avg TD First
Downs
Fumbles
Lost
Jonathan StewartPanthers2429894.16412
Ronnie HillmanBroncos2078634.27431
C.J. AndersonBroncos1527204.75332
Cam NewtonPanthers1326364.810563
Mike TolbertPanthers622564.11180
Cameron Artis-PaynePanthers451834.1160
Fozzy WhittakerPanthers251084.3170
Brock OsweilerBroncos21612.9150
Ted Ginn Jr.Panthers46015.0020
Juwan ThompsonBroncos18482.7020
Corey BrownPanthers6386.3040
Emmanuel SandersBroncos3299.7010
Jerricho CotcheryPanthers11616.0010
Andre CaldwellBroncos133.0010
Cody LatimerBroncos210.5000
Trevor SiemianBroncos1-1-1.0000
Joe WebbPanthers1-1-1.0000
Brad NortmanPanthers1-1-1.0000
Derek AndersonPanthers7-2-0.3000
Peyton ManningBroncos6-6-1.0000
Advantage: Panthers

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Receiving Statistics
Name Team Rec Targets Pct Yds Avg TD First
Downs
Fumbles
Lost
Demaryius ThomasBroncos10517659.7130412.46632
Emmanuel SandersBroncos7613755.5113514.96511
Greg OlsenPanthers7712362.6110414.37521
Ted Ginn Jr.Panthers449645.873916.810360
Owen DanielsBroncos467759.751711.23270
Jerricho CotcheryPanthers395373.648512.43260
Devin FunchessPanthers316448.447315.35241
Corey BrownPanthers315556.444714.44240
Jordan NorwoodBroncos223268.82079.40110
Bennie FowlerBroncos162466.720312.70110
Vernon DavisBroncos202969.020110.10110
C.J. AndersonBroncos253669.41837.3060
Virgil GreenBroncos121580.017314.4190
Mike TolbertPanthers182281.81548.6380
Ed DicksonPanthers172665.41217.12100
Brenton BersinPanthers91181.811913.2051
Ronnie HillmanBroncos243568.61114.6030
Jonathan StewartPanthers162176.2996.2150
Andre CaldwellBroncos102245.5727.2240
Fozzy WhittakerPanthers121580.0645.3020
Cody LatimerBroncos61154.5599.8140
Cameron Artis-PaynePanthers55100.05811.6040
Juwan ThompsonBroncos6966.7518.5010
Scott SimonsonPanthers11100.01010.0010
Advantage: Broncos

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Kicking Statistics
Name Team FGA FG Pct Longest 1-19 20-29 30-39 40-49 50+ XPA XP Pct
Brandon McManusBroncos353085.7570-012-128-85-85-7363597.2
Graham GanoPanthers363083.3521-110-104-513-162-4595694.9
Advantage: Broncos

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Punting Statistics
Name Team Punts Yds Avg Longest Blocked Inside
20
Touch
Backs
Fair
Catches
Returned Return
Yds
Avg
Return
Brad NortmanPanthers70317545.465020519372887.8
Britton ColquittBroncos84366343.662022416362476.9
Brandon McManusBroncos14141.0410010000.0
Advantage: Panthers

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Scoring Statistics
Name Team TD
Rushing
TD
Receiving
TD
Returns
TD XP PT2 FG Pts
Graham GanoPanthers000056030146
Brandon McManusBroncos000035030125
Cam NewtonPanthers10001000060
Ted Ginn Jr.Panthers01001000060
Ronnie HillmanBroncos700700042
Greg OlsenPanthers070700042
Jonathan StewartPanthers610700042
Emmanuel SandersBroncos060600036
Demaryius ThomasBroncos060600036
C.J. AndersonBroncos500500030
Devin FunchessPanthers050500030
Mike TolbertPanthers130400024
Corey BrownPanthers040400024
Jerricho CotcheryPanthers030300018
Owen DanielsBroncos030300018
Ed DicksonPanthers021300018
Andre CaldwellBroncos020200012
Aqib TalibBroncos002200012
Josh NormanPanthers002200012
Danny TrevathanBroncos00110006
Bradley RobyBroncos00110006
Omar BoldenBroncos00110006
Cody LatimerBroncos01010006
Brock OsweilerBroncos10010006
Chris Harris Jr.Broncos00110006
Virgil GreenBroncos01010006
Kurt ColemanPanthers00110006
Cameron Artis-PaynePanthers10010006
Fozzy WhittakerPanthers10010006
Luke KuechlyPanthers00110006
Malik JacksonBroncos00000002
Advantage: Panthers

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Kickoff Return Statistics
Name Team KR Yds Avg Longest TD
Fozzy WhittakerPanthers920923.2330
Andre CaldwellBroncos716223.1290
Omar BoldenBroncos1534222.8410
Joe WebbPanthers817822.3270
Kapri BibbsBroncos11515.0150
Jordan NorwoodBroncos22914.5150
Emmanuel SandersBroncos11313.0130
Mike TolbertPanthers188.080
Ted Ginn Jr.Panthers188.080
Thomas DavisPanthers133.030
Ed DicksonPanthers210.510
Juwan ThompsonBroncos100.000
Advantage: None

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Punt Return Statistics
Name Team PR Yds Avg Longest FC TD
Omar BoldenBroncos512324.68331
Ted Ginn Jr.Panthers2727710.337220
Jordan NorwoodBroncos6518.51420
Emmanuel SandersBroncos171036.114200
Shiloh KeoBroncos166.0610
Robert McClainPanthers252.5320
Dean MarlowePanthers100.0000
Advantage: Panthers

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Pass Defense Statistics
Name Team Int Yds TD Passes
Defensed
Kurt ColemanPanthers78919
Luke KuechlyPanthers448110
Thomas DavisPanthers42207
Josh NormanPanthers4110218
Aqib TalibBroncos3123213
David Bruton Jr.Broncos21107
Chris Harris Jr.Broncos29416
Danny TrevathanBroncos23916
Charles TillmanPanthers2007
Josh BushBroncos11301
Bradley RobyBroncos119010
Shiloh KeoBroncos12201
Darian StewartBroncos10010
Brandon MarshallBroncos1004
Colin JonesPanthers1001
A.J. KleinPanthers1801
Robert McClainPanthers12401
Malik JacksonBroncos0007
Roman HarperPanthers0005
Bene BenwikerePanthers0009
Shaquil BarrettBroncos0004
T.J. WardBroncos0006
Kawann ShortPanthers0004
Advantage: Panthers

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Sack Statistics
Name Team Sacks Yards
Lost
Kawann ShortPanthers11.091
Von MillerBroncos11.078
DeMarcus WareBroncos7.558
Mario AddisonPanthers6.035
Thomas DavisPanthers5.544
Derek WolfeBroncos5.539
Shaquil BarrettBroncos5.539
Malik JacksonBroncos5.032
Kony EalyPanthers5.030
Shane RayBroncos4.028
Kyle LovePanthers3.023
Sylvester WilliamsBroncos3.010
Ryan DelairePanthers2.520
Antonio SmithBroncos2.517
T.J. WardBroncos2.018
Vance WalkerBroncos2.016
Jared AllenPanthers2.013
Brandon MarshallBroncos1.511
Bene BenwikerePanthers1.09
A.J. KleinPanthers1.08
Star LotuleleiPanthers1.08
Kurt ColemanPanthers1.07
Luke KuechlyPanthers1.05
Dwan EdwardsPanthers1.05
David Bruton Jr.Broncos1.03
Wes HortonPanthers1.03
Charles JohnsonPanthers1.01
Corey NelsonBroncos1.01
Shaq ThompsonPanthers1.00
Lerentee McCrayBroncos0.53
Advantage: Broncos

Super Bowl 50
Broncos and Panthers Fumble Recovery Statistics
Name Team Fumble
Recoveries
TD Forced
Fumbles
Von MillerBroncos304
Shaquil BarrettBroncos204
Josh NormanPanthers203
Kawann ShortPanthers203
Kony EalyPanthers203
Darian StewartBroncos201
Roman HarperPanthers200
Malik JacksonBroncos200
Thomas DavisPanthers104
David Bruton Jr.Broncos102
Luke KuechlyPanthers102
Charles TillmanPanthers102
Bradley RobyBroncos111
DeMarcus WareBroncos101
Bene BenwikerePanthers101
Star LotuleleiPanthers101
Kyle LovePanthers100
Joe WebbPanthers100
Todd DavisBroncos100
Chris Harris Jr.Broncos002
T.J. WardBroncos002
Brandon MarshallBroncos002
Kevin NorwoodPanthers001
Teddy WilliamsPanthers001
A.J. KleinPanthers001
Josh BushBroncos001
Bennie FowlerBroncos001
Michael SchofieldBroncos001
Advantage: None

How to build a Super Bowl Team—Draft Status of Super Bowl 50 Starters

By Chris Malumphy

Thirty teams and their fans will be watching Super Bowl 50 this weekend with one nagging question in the back of their minds: how can our franchise duplicate the success of the 2015 Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. Analyzing the starting lineups for the big game might provide some insight.

The Broncos offense is a potpourri of pieces and parts that did just enough, but not much more, to win games as Denver relied on its stellar defense throughout the year. Only five of Denver's 11 offensive starters were drafted by the team, and only one was among the first 50 players in a draft: wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, selected with the 22nd pick in 2010. The only other Denver offensive starter drafted in the 1st round is the aging quarterback Peyton Manning, who was drafted in another century by the Indianapolis Colts. The Broncos are proponents of running back by committee and have gotten good results from 2nd round pick Ronnie Hillman and undrafted C.J. Anderson. Besides Thomas, the primary receiving targets are Emmanuel Sanders and Owen Daniels who are both mid-round draftees of other teams. Each of the offensive linemen is a mid-to-late round pick, with the Broncos having drafted both tackles and the center and having obtained the guards from elsewhere. In terms of putting points on the board, the 2015 Broncos' offense is mediocre at best and no other team should want to count on building an offense in the way Denver has.

In contrast, the Panther's offense includes five 1st round draft picks, four at the skill positions and the other at left tackle. But the Panther's had even fewer of their own draftees starting on offense (4) than the Broncos (5). Quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart were both high 1st round picks by the Panthers. Wide receiver Ted Ginn, tight end Greg Olsen and left tackle Michael Oher were 1st round choices by other teams. Right guard Ryan Kalil and center Trai Turner were drafted by the Panthers in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. Fullback Mike Tolbert, wide receiver Corey Brown, left guard Andrew Norwell and right tackle Mike Remmers were undrafted. Having 1st round talent at most of the skill positions helped Carolina score a league best 500 points, which is certainly worth emulating, but difficult to do if it entails obtaining three 1st round draft choices at skill positions from other teams. Better to draft them yourself.

Note that both starting quarterbacks were selected with the 1st pick in their drafts. Also note that the top wide receiver for each team was a 1st round choice and the top running back was either a 1st or 2nd round pick. In addition, Panthers starting tight end Greg Olsen and 49ers backup tight end Vernon Davis are also 1st round selections. But only one of the 10 starting offensive linemen was drafted in the first 50 picks of a draft.

On defense, the Broncos have 1st round draft choices at both outside linebacker positions (Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware), cornerback (Aqib Talib) and nose tackle (Sylvester Williams). Defensive ends Vance Walker and Malik Jackson and inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall were late round draft choices. Strong safety T.J. Ward was a 2nd round choice, and cornerback Chris Harris and free safety Darian Stewart were undrafted. Only four of Denver's defensive starters were actually drafted by the team (Williams, Jackson, Miller and Trevathan), the remaining seven were obtained in other ways. Note that none of the starting defensive backs began their career with Denver. Wade Phillips has always been a fantastic defensive coordinator and the Broncos's organization has done a terrific job in putting together one of the strongest defensive units in the league with a tremendous pass rush.

The Panthers' starting defense includes eight players drafted by the team. First round draft choices were used to fill a defensive tackle (Star Lotulelei) and two linebacker (Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis) positions. Defensive tackle Kawann Short was drafted in the 2nd round, defensive end Charles Johnson was selected in the 3rd and defensive end Jared Allen, originally a 4th round pick of the Chiefs, was obtained in mid season. Linebacker A.J. Klein was drafted by the Panthers in the 5th round. The Panthers selected cornerbacks Josh Norman and Robert McClain in the 5th and 7th rounds. Safeties Roman Harper (2nd round) and Kurt Coleman (7th round) were originally drafted by other teams. The Panthers have drafted well on defense and the unit is essentially home grown, with only the two safeties and pass rush specialist Jared Allen coming from elsewhere.

The Panthers and the Broncos each have two linebackers and an interior lineman drafted in the first round. Neither team drafted their starting safeties. While the Panthers drafted their starting cornerbacks in late rounds and the Broncos obtained theirs from other teams (one originally a 1st round pick and the other a late round choice).

Based on the Super Bowl 50 starting lineups, the 30 other teams and their fans can ask a few basic questions if they want to emulate the success of the Broncos and the Panthers. Do we have a quarterback who is qualified to have been the top pick in the draft (in retrospect we can conclude that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers should have been and that Russell Wilson could have been in certain years)? Do we have at least one wide receiver of the caliber to be a top half of round one pick? Is our running back worthy of a 1st or 2nd round choice. Is our left tackle of 1st round quality. How about our tight end? Do we have at least two linebackers and an interior defensive lineman worthy of a first round choice. Do we have a shutdown cornerback? If the answer to any of those questions is no, your team better start looking towards the draft and at available free agents. If the answers to all those questions are yes, your team might get to play in February someday.

Draft Status of Super Bowl 50 Starters
(* Key Alternates)
Denver Broncos Offense
Position Name Drafted Team Round Pick Player Position College
QBPeyton Manning1998Colts111QBTennessee
QB*Brock Osweiler2012Broncos22557QBArizona State
RBRonnie Hillman2012Broncos3467RBSan Diego State
RBC.J. Anderson             California
WRDemaryius Thomas2010Broncos12222WRGeorgia Tech
WREmmanuel Sanders2010Steelers31882WRSouthern Methodist
WR*Jordan Norwood             Penn State
TEOwen Daniels2006Texans4198TEWisconsin
LTMichael Schofield2014Broncos33195 TMichigan
LGEvan Mathis2005Panthers31579 GAlabama
CMatt Paradis 2014 Broncos 6 31 207 C Boise State
RGLouis Vasquez2009Chargers31478 GTexas Tech
RTRyan Harris2007Broncos3670 TNotre Dame
Denver Broncos Defense
Position Name Drafted Team Round Pick Player Position College
DEVance Walker2009Falcons71210DTGeorgia Tech
NTSylvester Williams2013Broncos12828DTNorth Carolina
DEMalik Jackson2012Broncos52137DTTennessee
OLBDeMarcus Ware2005Cowboys11111DETroy
OLBVon Miller2011Broncos122LBTexas A&M
ILBDanny Trevathan2012Broncos618188LBKentucky
ILBBrandon Marshall2012Jaguars57142LBNevada
CBAqib Talib2008Buccaneers12020DBKansas
CBChris Harris             Kansas
FSDarian Stewart             South Carolina
SST.J. Ward2010Browns2638DBOregon
Denver Broncos Special Teams
Position Name Drafted Team Round Pick Player Position College
KBrandon McManus             Temple
PBritton Colquitt             Tennessee
KRAndre Caldwell2008Bengals33497WRFlorida
PREmmanuel Sanders2010Steelers31882WRSouthern Methodist
LSAaron Brewer             San Diego State
HBritton Colquitt             Tennessee
Carolina Panthers Offense
Position Name Drafted Team Round Pick Player Position College
QBCam Newton2011Panthers111QBAuburn
RBJonathan Stewart2008Panthers11313RBOregon
RB*Fozzy Whittaker             Texas
FBMike Tolbert             Coastal Carolina
WRTed Ginn2007 Dolphins 1 9 9 WR Ohio State
WRCorey Brown             Ohio State
WR*Jerricho Cotchery2004Jets412108WRNorth Carolina State
TEGreg Olsen2007Bears13131TEMiami (FL)
LTMichael Oher2009Ravens12323 TMississippi
LGAndrew Norwell             Ohio State
CTrai Turner2014Panthers32892 GLouisiana State
RGRyan Kalil2007Panthers22759 CUSC
RTMike Remmers             Oregon State
Carolina Panthers Defense
Position Name Drafted Team Round Pick Player Position College
DECharles Johnson2007Panthers32083DEGeorgia
DTStar Lotulelei2013Panthers11414DTUtah
DTKawann Short2013Panthers21244DTPurdue
DEJared Allen2004Chiefs430126DEIdaho State
WLBThomas Davis2005Panthers11414DBGeorgia
WLB*Ben Jacobs             Fresno State
MLBLuke Kuechly2012Panthers199LBBoston College
SLBA.J. Klein2013Panthers515148LBIowa State
CBJosh Norman2012Panthers58143DBCoastal Carolina
CBRobert McClain 2010 Panthers 7 42 249 DB Connecticut
FSKurt Coleman2010Eagles737244DBOhio State
SSRoman Harper2006Saints21143DBAlabama
Carolina Panthers Special Teams
Position Name Drafted Team Round Pick Player Position College
KGraham Gano             Florida State
PBrad Nortman2012Panthers637207 PWisconsin
KRTed Ginn2007 Dolphins 1 9 9 WR Ohio State
PRTed Ginn2007 Dolphins 1 9 9 WR Ohio State
LSJ.J. Jansen             Notre Dame
HBrad Nortman2012Panthers637207 PWisconsin

The Counter-intuitive Statistic the Denver Broncos Must Capitalize on to Upset the Carolina Panthers

By Chris Malumphy

The Carolina Panthers are favored to beat the Denver Broncos by six points in Super Bowl 50. The Panthers have a near perfect 17–1 record heading into the game including two playoff victories in which they have led by 30+ points. The Broncos are 14–4 and barely eked by the Patriots in the AFC Championship game due in large part to a missed extra point.

Both teams have strong defenses. Each have good, but not dominant, running backs. The Panthers rely on Jonathan Stewart who gained 989 yards on 242 carries for a 4.1 yard average. The Broncos split the carries between Ronnie Hillman (207 rushes, 863 yards, 4.2 yard average) and C.J. Anderson (152, 720, 4.7). The Broncos have the better wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas (105 receptions, 1304 yards, 12.4 average, 6 touchdowns) and Emmanuel Sanders (76, 1135, 14.9, 6) while the Panthers counter with the explosive Ted Ginn Jr. (44, 739, 16.8, 10) but a nondescript group of others the most productive of whom was Jerricho Cotchery (39, 485, 12.4, 3). The Panthers best the Broncos at tight end with Greg Olsen (77, 1104, 14.3, 7) being clearly superior to Owen Daniels (46, 517, 11.2, 3).

The Dominance of Cam Newton

The biggest reason the Panthers are favored are the quarterbacks. Cam Newton had an MVP season. Peyton Manning had the worst season of his illustrious career and to be honest, his backup Brock Osweiler outplayed him in almost every statistical category although neither Bronco quarterback set the world on fire. As Peyton Manning so honestly admitted following the surprising playoff victory over the New England Patriots, the Broncos no longer rely on him to win games, but rather on their defense, and Manning’s main goal is to avoid screwing it up.

Newton clearly out-passed both Manning and Osweiler this season. Newton threw for nearly twice as many touchdowns with less than half as many interceptions as the combined Broncos duo: Newton (35 TD, 10 Int), Manning (9 TD, 17 Int) and Osweiler (10 TD, 6 Int). While both Osweiler (61.8%) and Manning (59.8%) either equaled or surpassed Newton’s (59.8%) completion percentage, Newton’s 7.8% average gained per attempt clearly outdistanced Manning’s 6.8 and Osweiler’s 7.2.

However, Newton possesses another tremendous advantage over Manning and Osweiler: his ability to run the football. Newton led all NFL quarterbacks in rushing attempts (132), yards (636) and touchdowns (10) in 2015. In stark contrast, Manning was the worst rushing quarterback of all the starters in the league with 6 carries for -6 yards, a -1.0 average and no touchdowns. While Osweiler was more mobile than Manning, he finished with fewer than one tenth the yardage of Newton, running 21 times for 61 yards, a 2.9 yard average and one touchdown. Newton is not merely a running quarterback who can pass; he is a prolific passer who can run. There is a world of difference as those who have watched Michael Vick and Colin Kaepernick can attest. When Newton came into the league, some thought his passing game might be inadequate. He disproved that immediately by throwing for over 400 yards in each of his first two pro games.

Running the Ball in a Pass Happy Game

The NFL is in the midst of a significant sea change in how the game is played. In the past 20 years the traditional running game has been deprecated and the league has become pass happy. Where play calling was once somewhat balanced between the pass and the run, teams attempted to pass nearly 58% of the time in 2015, the highest percentage ever. Only 7 players gained over 1,000 yards rushing in 2015, the fewest in well over 20 years and less than one-third the 23 who topped that mark as recently as 2006.

But while the passing game is preeminent, the ability to run the ball is still important. The top 16 teams in rushing in 2015 compiled a cumulative record of 149–107 (.582). The only teams with double digit wins that failed to crack the top 16 in rushing were the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, the teams with the most fabled quarterbacks of this century. Of course, countless rushing yards are amassed to seal a victory by teams that built commanding leads with their running games. But one fascinating aspect of the modern running game is the success of teams with quarterbacks that can run.

The Importance of Mobile Quarterbacks

Six teams had quarterbacks who ran for more than 300 yards in 2015. Those quarterbacks led their teams to a combined record of 59–37 (.615) despite the fact that the last member of the group, the Jaguars Blake Bortles, went 5–11. The teams with the top five running quarterbacks were 54–26 (.675). Clearly, the possession of a quarterback who can run is an advantage — so long as the passing game comes first.

Cam Newton is the epitome of the new style dual-threat quarterback that is beginning to rock the NFL. Newton and his 636 yards rushing led the Panthers to a 15–1 record. Tyrod Taylor had 568 yards on the ground and the Bills finished 8–8. Russell Wilson had 553 yards rushing and the Seahawks were 10–6. Alex Smith led the Chiefs to an 11–5 record with 498 yards running. Aaron Rodgers, perhaps the best pure passer in the game today, used his 344 yards rushing to help get the Packers to 10–6. The Jaguars Blake Bortles rushed for 310 yards and Jacksonville was 5-11.

Each of those quarterbacks most importantly had remarkably efficient passing records, even the Buffalo Bills Tyrod Taylor who was previously unknown until named the starter by new Coach Rex Ryan. While Taylor finished second in rushing by quarterbacks he also threw the ball very efficiently tossing 20 touchdown passes with only 6 interceptions resulting in a quarterback rating of 99.4, the same as Newton.

The Counter-Intuitive Stat

But herein lies the long shot chance for the Broncos to win the game. Counter-intuitively, mobile quarterbacks are more readily sacked than less mobile pocket passers. I know that sounds strange, but over the years the statistics prove it to be true and 2015 was no exception. Overall, the quarterbacks with 200+ attempts in 2015 were sacked about 6.0% of the time they dropped back to pass. But the leading rushers among quarterbacks were actually sacked more frequently: Newton (6.3%), Taylor (8.7%), Wilson (8.5%), Smith (8.7%), Rodgers (7.4%), Bortles (7.8%). Those percentages, which may seem insignificant in comparison to the average of 6.0%, can be quite meaningful when spread out over a season. For Blake Bortles, who attempted over 600 passes, the difference between being sacked 7.8% of the time versus the 6.0% average, translates into an additional 12 sacks, nearly one more sack per game.

Here’s how the top running quarterbacks fared, the first number is the number of times they were actually sacked, the second is the number of times they would have been sacked at the 6.0% league average for quarterbacks with 200+ passing attempts, and the third number is the difference: Cam Newton (33, 32, 1), Tyrod Taylor (36, 24, 12), Russell Wilson (45, 31, 14), Alex Smith (45, 30, 15), Aaron Rodgers (46, 37, 9) and Blake Bortles (51, 39, 12). Conversely, the least mobile quarterbacks in terms of gaining yards rushing were sacked less frequently than average: Carson Palmer (25, 34, -9), Joe Flacco (16, 26, -10), Nick Foles (14, 22, -8), Matt Hasselbeck (16, 16, 0), Drew Brees (31, 40, -9) and Peyton Manning (16, 21, -5).

None of the least mobile quarterbacks were sacked more frequently than the average quarterback while all of the most mobile quarterbacks were sacked more often. So what gives?

A variety of factors could be at play. Quarterbacks may only be running out of necessity due to poor pass protection. But that can’t be the primary factor — otherwise how do you explain the won-loss records the teams. Newton, Wilson and Taylor each ran with the ball more than 100 times last season. Smith ran it 84 times. The Panthers, Seahawks, Bills and Chiefs undoubtedly have plays designed to take advantage of the excellent rushing capabilities of their quarterbacks.

Perhaps the leading rushers lack confidence in their passing games. Maybe they are slow decision makers who can’t decide whether to throw the ball away or take off and run quick enough. Think again. Each of the leading rushers among the 2015 quarterbacks also had outstanding seasons throwing the football as attested to by their quarterback ratings: Newton 99.4, Taylor 99.4, Wilson 110.1, Smith 95.4, Rodgers 92.7 and Bortles 88.2. Despite playing behind a miserable offensive line, Bortles still threw 35 touchdown passes, 12 more than any quarterback in the history of the Jaguars. Cumulatively, those six top rushing quarterbacks threw 175 touchdown passes with just 57 interceptions. Doesn’t appear to be slow thinking to me.

Running quarterbacks have advanced mightily since the bygone days of Bobby Douglass who ran 143 times for 968 yards and a 6.9 yard average for the Chicago Bears in 1972 while dooming his team to a 4–9–1 record by completing only 37.9% of his passes and compiling a 49.8 quarterback rating. The prowess of Newton and Wilson make the likes of even Michael Vick and Colin Kaepernick look like rank amateurs.

The best I can figure is that the mobile quarterbacks fight to extend each play as long as they can by using their mobility in the hope that a receiver will spring open while the less mobile quarterbacks throw the ball away as soon as it appears that a play may be going sour. Although fighting to extend plays tends to result in more sacks, the benefits can be dramatic. Think of Russell Wilson and his mad dashes sometimes twenty yards behind the line of scrimmage barely avoiding the pursuit of would be tacklers turning them into big plays. Or what about Aaron Rodgers rolling wide and then circling back on multiple plays against the Cardinals in the playoffs on the Packers’ final 96-yard touchdown drive that resulted from not one, but two, successful Hail Mary type passes.

The Best Shot for an Upset

Denver’s stellar pass rush must capitalize on the fact that running quarterbacks are sacked more frequently than those who remain in the pocket. This is the Broncos best opportunity, albeit slim, to topple the favored Panthers. Denver can’t rely on Manning being the passer he was just a few years ago. The Broncos running game may not have much success against the tough Panther defense. It may not be a unique strategy, but Denver’s pass rush must do everything it can to harass Newton all game long. If Manning can play within himself, getting rid of the ball quickly as usual, and avoiding costly errors he may give his defense the opportunity to stop Newton and the Panthers in their tracks. It is a decided long shot but it is the Broncos’ best hope. On the negative side, Manning was an interception machine early in the year (although he hasn’t thrown any yet in the playoffs), and the Panthers possess several ball hawks including Kurt Coleman with seven interceptions and Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis with four each. But the Broncos defense is full of sack meisters capable of containing and hunting down Newton led by Von Miller (11 sacks), DeMarcus Ware (7.5), Derek Wolfe (5.5), Shaquil Barrett (5.5), Malik Jackson (5) and five other Denver players with two or more sacks.

The goal for the Broncos is to use their tremendous pass rush to swarm over Newton in hopes of getting sacks and forcing turnovers. A solid pass rush will undoubtedly be needed to neutralize Newton’s ability to hit Ginn and Olsen for big gains. Newton did a good job of avoiding interceptions in 2015 and he was the hardest to sack among the top six running quarterbacks, but he was sacked more frequently than non-mobile quarterbacks and the Denver pass rush can be pretty awesome. And unlike Manning and Osweiler, who rarely run and didn’t lose a fumble rushing all year, Newton coughed up the ball four times while rushing during the season, losing three to his opponents.

If the Denver defense can thwart Newton and Manning can avoid costly turnovers and get the ball into the hands of his superior receivers, the Broncos have a chance. It is a tall order, and frankly I don’t expect it to happen, but it is probably the only way that Peyton Manning will take home a Super Bowl ring in what is likely to be the last game of his career.

2015 Starting Quarterbacks by Yards Rushing
Name Att Comp Pct Yds Avg TD Int Sacked Pct
Sacked
Rating Rushes Yds Avg TD Team
Record
Cam Newton49529659.838377.83510336.399.41326364.81015-1 (0.938)
Tyrod Taylor38024263.730358.0206368.799.41045685.548-8 (0.500)
Russell Wilson48332968.140248.3348458.5110.11035535.4110-6 (0.625)
Alex Smith47030765.334867.4207458.795.4844985.9211-5 (0.688)
Aaron Rodgers57234760.738216.7318467.492.7583445.9110-6 (0.625)
Blake Bortles60635558.644287.33518517.888.2523106.025-11 (0.313)
Ryan Fitzpatrick56233559.639056.93115193.388.0602704.5210-6 (0.625)
Colin Kaepernick24414459.016156.6652810.378.5452565.715-11 (0.313)
Marcus Mariota37023062.228187.61910389.391.5342527.423-13 (0.188)
Johnny Manziel22312957.815006.775197.979.4372306.203-13 (0.188)
Jameis Winston53531258.340427.62215274.884.2542133.966-10 (0.375)
Jay Cutler48331164.436597.62111295.792.3382015.316-10 (0.375)
Andrew Luck29316255.318816.41512154.974.9331965.908-8 (0.500)
Teddy Bridgewater44729265.332317.2149449.088.7441924.4311-5 (0.688)
Blaine Gabbert28217863.120317.2107258.186.2321855.815-11 (0.313)
Matthew Stafford59239867.242627.23213446.997.0441593.617-9 (0.438)
Andy Dalton38625566.132508.4257204.9106.3571422.5312-4 (0.750)
Ryan Tannehill58636361.942087.22412457.188.7321414.416-10 (0.375)
Derek Carr57335061.139877.03213315.191.1331384.207-9 (0.438)
Josh McCown29218663.721097.2124237.393.320984.913-13 (0.188)
Matt Cassel20411958.312766.357146.470.615785.204-12 (0.250)
Matt Ryan61440766.345917.52116304.789.037631.708-8 (0.500)
Brock Osweiler27517061.819677.2106237.786.421612.9112-4 (0.750)
Eli Manning61838762.644367.23514274.293.620613.106-10 (0.375)
Tom Brady62440264.447707.6367385.7102.234531.6312-4 (0.750)
Kirk Cousins54337969.841667.72911264.6101.626481.859-7 (0.563)
Brian Hoyer36922460.726067.1197256.391.415442.909-7 (0.563)
Sam Bradford53234665.037257.01914285.086.426391.507-9 (0.438)
Ben Roethlisberger46931968.039388.42116204.194.515291.9010-6 (0.625)
Philip Rivers66143766.147927.32913405.793.817281.604-12 (0.250)
Carson Palmer53734263.746718.73511254.4104.625241.0113-3 (0.813)
Joe Flacco41326664.427916.81412163.783.113231.835-11 (0.313)
Nick Foles33719056.420526.1710144.069.017201.217-9 (0.438)
Matt Hasselbeck25615660.916906.695165.984.016150.908-8 (0.500)
Drew Brees62742868.348707.83211314.7101.024140.617-9 (0.438)
Peyton Manning33119859.822496.8917164.667.96-6-1.0012-4 (0.750)

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