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
Rating Rushes Yds Avg TD Team
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)