NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

Is There a Place in Pro Football for Cam Newton?
The stadium scene.
Jan. 11 2011 9:34 AM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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 Quarterback Cameron Newton #2 of the Auburn Tigers.
Cam Newton after Auburn's victory in the Tostitos BCS National Championship game

Nate: Forget choosing a helmet. If I somehow found myself on an NFL field—emergency long snapper?—I'd swaddle myself in a full-on space suit, or maybe an iron lung. The only football-related health risk I'm willing to take is that my legs fall asleep after watching games on the couch all weekend.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

You'll also be happy to hear that I am not here today to malign the clock-mangling, risk-averse football coaches of America. Monday night's BCS national championship game between Oregon and Auburn showcased two of football's sharpest minds. Oregon head coach Chip Kelly and Auburn assistant Gus Malzahn both happily toss aside settled football law—the supposed need to kill time between plays, the reflex to kick an extra point after a touchdown—in favor of a more frenzied, greedy offensive strategy. If you're well-acquainted with the conventional rhythms of football, this can be both thrilling and confounding: Oregon and Auburn lead the nation in points scored when fans aren't paying attention. On its first series, Auburn called a Statue of Liberty play off a quick snap count, then followed it up with a fake Statue of Liberty play. In the second quarter, Oregon punter Jackson Rice pitched the ball to the Ducks' kicker for a two-point conversion, giving his team an 11-7 lead. Later, Rice completed a pass on a fake punt to give Oregon a key first down.

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This is an alluring vision of what football can be—a game where no play is too crazy to try, in which the punter is an offensive weapon. For both teams, this year felt like a season-long re-enactment of Boise State's whimsical, trick-play-laden 2007 Fiesta Bowl, only played at a faster pace and with better athletes. But the lesson of Monday's game, a 22-19 victory for Auburn, is that great coaches and great players do not guarantee a great game, and that real-world football is a lot messier than it looks on a locker-room whiteboard. No matter how creative you are with the O's, you're eventually going run into a big, fast, unblockable X. Nick Fairley and the rest of the Auburn defensive linemen made Oregon's feints and dives look naïve and childish. The Ducks drive a souped-up, eye-bleedingly yellow sports car, but Auburn didn't let them get it out of the driveway.

The tight margin and the game-winning field goal as time expired—I could hear your ecstatic cries, Stefan—might implant false memories of a taut, dramatic title tilt. This was nothing of the sort. Auburn's disruptive front line and an atypically mundane performance by Cam Newton—was he hurt? Bored with steamrolling, puny college types?—made for a disjointed game, one the Tigers dominated but never seized control of. Michael Dyer's halting 37-yard run on the game-clinching drive was a strangely appropriate way for Auburn to seal the win. The Tigers' freshman careened through the line, somersaulted over a Duck, and, for a moment, stood totally still, not realizing that his knee hadn't hit the ground. In real time, this looked like a playground trick—a kid yelling "timeout!" during a game of freeze tag, then "time in!" before his friends were ready to resume the chase. By the time Oregon realized what was going on, Dyer had raced to the 23-yard line and the game was essentially over. (Come on, Michael—Marshawn Lynch totally would've made it to the end zone.)

To get back to pro football, I'm fascinated to see how Newton does as an NFL quarterback. (I'm assuming that he declares for the 2011 draft.) The 6-foot-6, 250-pound quarterback is a physical freak akin to LeBron James—a guy who's so preposterously proportioned that he makes both his predecessors and his contemporaries look outdated. In pro football, though, size, speed, and strength don't guarantee success. (Consider Kyle Boller, who had scouts salivating when he demonstrated his ability to throw the ball through the goalposts on one knee from the 50-yard line.) There are also no Chip Kellys and Gus Malzahns in the NFL, where offensive schemes are comparably rigid and there's an overall lack of variation and experimentation compared with what we see in the college game. Every starting quarterback is programmed to do roughly the same thing: go through his progressions, find the open man, and scramble as a last resort. If, like Tim Tebow, he doesn't do everything the NFL way, he must be re-programmed.

Auburn won the national title this year in large part because Newton was an unstoppable battering ram on third down. It's hard to imagine, though, that an NFL coach will grant him permission to throw his body at the opposition. Considering that NFL defensive lines are full of quick, gargantuan players like Nick Fairley, maybe this makes sense—it's an accomplishment simply to keep your quarterback alive. Nevertheless, it's strange to think that Cam Newton, who toyed with the elite scholar-athletes of America's leading research institutions, might have to alter his game dramatically to play in the pros. Stefan, does that mean there's something wrong with pro football, or are the college and pro games so different that it's unfair to criticize the NFL way of thinking?

Let's also look forward to next weekend, when we'll see a couple of enticing third meetings in the AFC. The Ravens' Terrell Suggs has compared Saturday's Pittsburgh-Baltimore to World War III, while Jets coach Rex Ryan has declared that his team's matchup with the Patriots "is about Bill Belichick versus Rex Ryan." Belichick's response: "I don't think you'll see either of us out there making any blocks, or tackles, or runs, throws or catches. At least you won't see me doing that. It's probably a good thing for our team." Again, Stefan, the NFL reveals itself as a stodgy institution that's out of touch with what the fans want. Scrap the new overtime system, Roger Goodell. Instead, let's see Belichick and Ryan at midfield, clad in loincloths, wrestling each other for a berth in the AFC title game.