SANTA CLARA – “Merrill Feuerborn was adamant that we had to get Cam Newton and he was the future of the NFL,” Jim Harbaugh said at a recent press conference.
Who in the world is Merrill Feuerborn?
He is Harbaugh’s father-in-law.
“You’ve got to give him credit, he saw it,” said Harbaugh, grinning. “I think the whole football world saw it at the time. My father, Jack Harbaugh, was championing Colin Kaepernick. The two fathers championing their champion.”
So, Harbaugh was experiencing family strife, father vs. father.
Luckily for him, the Panthers drafted Feuerborn’s champion with the first pick in 2011. End of strife.
If the Panthers could do it over, would they take Kaepernick, Jack Harbaugh’s guy, over Newton?
Two years ago, that would have been a silly question. Most people thought Newton was better than Kaepernick because Newton won the Heisman Trophy and he played in the SEC, the toughest conference. Kaepernick played in the WAC, which doesn’t exist anymore.
But Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl last season and Newton has not even been to the playoffs.
So which quarterback is better – Cam or Kap? They’re so similar their names are almost identical.
“They’re both big, strong, athletic quarterbacks,” said 49ers’ third-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson. “But that’s not the way you look at it. They’re two totally different players.”
Let’s focus on those differences. McLeod, you can start us off.
“Look at the way they run the ball. The first thing you look at is Cam is more of a downhill, almost a power runner. And Kap is around the edge. He’s got that speed. He’s got that dynamic disconnect ability where he can break out when he’s out in the open.”
They’re both elite running quarterbacks with different running styles. Obvious. Their passing styles are even more different.
Kaepernick likes to throw the ball deep downfield to his first or second read and, if neither one is open, Kaepernick takes off and runs. He has not become the type of quarterback who stands in the pocket and goes through the full progression, looking at three or four receivers. That’s because he doesn’t thrive when there’s pressure in the pocket – he’s completing just 49 percent of his passes under pressure this season, third-worst in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.
But Newton has become a progression-reading quarterback. Watch him against the Niners on Sunday. He’ll stand in the pocket and be calm, almost bored, and scan the whole field like he’s Tom Brady. He doesn’t seem to be worried about the pass rush – he’s completing a league-leading 75 percent of his passes when he’s under pressure this season.
“How do you defend Cam Newton?” Trent Dilfer asked rhetorically on a Bay Area radio station recently. “Teams have tried to put pressure on him and make him make quick decisions. He’s really adjusted well this year and has gashed teams with the quick throws. He’s a dilemma.”
In this way, Cam is a more advanced passer than Kap. And Cam is almost two years younger than Kap – Cam is 24 and Kap is 26.
They’re both being groomed by former NFL quarterbacks – Harbaugh grooms Kap and Mike Shula grooms Cam. But Kap has been groomed by Harbaugh since his first day in Santa Clara. This is Shula’s first season in Carolina, and Shula is Cam’s second offensive coordinator in three seasons. It’s remarkable that Cam is a more advanced passer than Kap considering Kap has had the smoother development process.
Cam also plays for a less talented team than Kap. The Panthers are more dependent on Cam than the 49ers are on Kap. Cam could run the 49ers’ offense no problem – hand the ball off or fake the hand off and read one or two receivers before scrambling. Kap probably couldn’t carry the Panthers’ no-name offense at this stage in his career the way Newton is carrying it right now.
So, the Panthers made the right choice picking Newton over Kaepernick.
“What separates Cam,” wrote Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn in an e-mail to me, “is he’s as fierce a competitor and as mentally tough as anyone I’ve coached.” That’s high praise from Newton’s former offensive coordinator at Auburn.
But Harbaugh tops it: “(Cam) is just uniquely talented. My son Jack Harbaugh is a little over 14 months old. On the curve, he’s above the 100 percentile. He’s big, growing very well. Cam Newton would be further outside the graph. He’s in a world by himself.”
I’m sure Merrill Feuerborn would agree.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.