Cam Newton doesn’t get calls because there’s never been anyone like him
On Thursday night, on countless Twitter accounts, homes, bars and text-message chains, the non-Broncos-loving world was wondering one thing: How was Denver's already-stifling defense getting away with treating Cam Newton's head like it was some sort of piñata tackling dummy? There were at least five occasions in which Newton was on a receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit – each of which were highlighted on the broadcast – that were so bad a viewer had to cringe and wonder how quickly Newton would be pulled for the game because of the concussion protocol. Some of these were textbook helmet-to-helmet blows. So if the NFL is in business of protecting its quarterbacks to the degree that refs would throw a flag on Ndamukong Suh for merely thinking of driving a QB into the turf, why can't Newton, the reigning MVP and one of the league's biggest stars get a freakin' call?
Why? It's the same thing that makes Cam Newton so great. He isn't the stereotypical pocket quarterback. He's a hybrid quarterback/rusher, something the NFL has seen plenty of times before, but not via a player with the size, strength and fearlessness of Newton and allows him to run the ball 125 times a year and miss just two of 81 possible starts. Already he's set the NFL record for most career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback and he's one game into his sixth season. Simply put: The NFL rule book wasn't written with Cam Newton in mind.
Other quarterbacks wouldn't have taken five helmet hits in a game because other quarterbacks aren't in the position that Newton puts himself into. If Drew Brees was flushed out of the pocket and crushed in the facemask by a Von Miller hit, the flag would come out every time. Brees doesn't do that. The contact is obvious. Russell Wilson runs only a little less than Newton but draws flags because he plays the role of the safe scrambler – sliding before contact, scampering out of bounds, throwing the ball away instead of trying to create a highlight-reel run. When Newton leaves the pocket, he's like Earl Campbell under center, except with six inches and 25 pounds on the former running-back bruiser. If he's not initiating contact, he's putting defenders in the impossible position of trying to stop him at full speed all while staying clear of the helmet. Of course there's going to head-to-head hits, the same way as when a fullback takes a carry.
Are officials swallowing the flags because they'd have to throw them every time? Do they let Newton's out-of-pocket scrambles affect how they deal with him when he's standing tall and throwing passes? It might be a little of both. Here are two snippets of applicable NFL rules (rule 12, section 2):
* It's considered unnecessary roughness when a quarterback is in a defenseless posture while “in the act of or just after throwing a pass (passing posture).”
* “It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside the tackle box (an area extending from tackle to tackle and from three yards beyond the line of scrimmage to the offensive team’s end line). Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler against an opponent shall not be a foul. (Emphasis added.)
Think back on the hits on Newton. At least three came when he was running, being pulled toward the ground, trying to fight for more yardage with his head up and a defender tasked with finishing off the tackle inadvertently hit his head. Another time, like in the picture below, officials simply missed Newton getting popped while in the pocket. The first isn't a penalty. The second is. Neither was flagged, the second probably because of the first.
Cam Newton deserves to be protected but, as a genre-busting player, there needs to be a delicate balance in letting him run roughshod over a defense, accruing 15-yard penalties in the process, and taking un-flagged hits to the head that could possibly end his career. Newton is Lebron James, who gets fouled every time he drives to the hoop but only gets a whistle when he's practically mugged. (At least LeBron occasionally get some calls by complaining. Newton seemed to avoid doing so on Thursday.)
The NFL will rectify this though. Cam Newton won't be taking shots to the head every week, that you can be certain. Once Tom Brady retires, Newton becomes the league's most marketable star. And a league already beset by concussion trouble can't have its No. 1 guy narrowly avoiding them every week.