Cam or Kap? Still a tough call

Here is my Thursday column on the Cam-Kap conundrum.

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

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  1. Wayyyy too early to tell with their careers still getting off the ground.

    But I’ll take CK7 just from the stand point of him having a better Organization to support him. Now that’s a No-Brainer.

  2. Cam Newton has made Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon Lafell and Greg Olson very productive players for the Panthers offense. All three guys are nobodies.
    Who’s game has been elevated by CK? Same answer, Nobody!

    1. There are confounding variables you are not controlling for. For example, Ted Ginn Jr.’s productivity with the 49ers has more to do with the offensive coordinator than the quarterback.

      However, to answer your question, you can compare Michael Crabtree production with Colin Kaepernick with his production with Alex Smith.

      Crabtree’s Productions (2012 regular seasons plus playoffs); Alex Smith vs. Colin Kaepernick

      Games: 9 vs. 10
      Targets: 58 vs. 97
      Receptions: 42 vs. 63
      Yards: 492 vs. 898
      Touchdowns: 4 vs. 8
      Yards Per Reception: 11.7 vs. 14.3

      Crabtree is almost twice as productive with Kaepernick. Keep in mind that Kaepernick’s games include the playoffs, which has a stronger strength of opponent.

      To add context to those stats, Crabtree specifically said ,“I think [Kaepernick] trusted me more. Playing wide receiver, you need a quarterback who trusts you. I feel like he trusted me.”

    2. Crabtree’s game was greatly elevated by the switch to Kap as his QB.
      Everybody all around Kap has had their play elevated by having him as their QB.

  3. >>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.

    Grant can you go to Advanced PFF stats for us and find out how many NFL starts each QB has under his belt? I believe that is the more critical factor in a QB’s development than calendar age.

      1. Bingo. Their ages are irrelevant. It’s the game experience that is the key and Cam has more than twice as many starts. Cam is a great talent, but before this season he was not a leader and sulked openly when things weren’t going well. He appears to be getting better, but Kap is a natural in this area and has similar athletic and arm ability. In the long run I think Kap will turn out to be the better player.

    1. Cam got to struggle his second year and now in his third year as a pro, you are seeing growth from him. He is managing games as well as making plays.
      Kaep will get there. These two will be dominant QB’s for years to come.

  4. Kaep 67%, Cam 65%. Who has won more games since week 8 of `12? How many playoff appearances for Cam? What does Cam’s NFC ring and paycheck look like? Who has the bigger cap figure and signing bonus? 40 time?

  5. Grant,

    The comparison between Kaepernick and Newton is an interesting one, and all of the statistical analysis would point toward giving Newton the edge.

    Good stuff.

    1. ESPN gave the edge to Cam as well. The biggest improvement from Cam is he is finally getting football smart. I personally didn’t think he had it in him but I have been wrong once before.

    1. Football isn’t tennis or golf; it is a team sport. No matter how important the quarterback is, there are still 52 other players that have something to do with a team’s records. Kaepernick had a Super Bowl roster that had a great records before he became the starting quarterback.

  6. The main question with Cam is his leadership abilities. He’s been criticised in the past for being selfish and aloof – though perception and reality can often be different. Apparently he’s made great strides in this department this season. We will see if it is a long term change.

  7. Kaep !

    Cam is good .. yeah .. but the Panthers (this week)
    will shoot themselves in the foot enough
    for the Niners to eek out a win

    30-10 Niners

  8. But Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl last season and Newton has not even been to the playoffs.

    This statement alone proves that it is no contest. The fact that we are even having this discussion with one QB having been a starter since day one while the other QB having not even completed a full season as a starter clearly swings the pendulum towards Kaep.

  9. But Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl last season and Newton has not even been to the playoffs.

    So? Alex Smith has been to the playoffs and Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl.

    1. Agreed A, it’s means absolutely nothing when comparing individual players, the Niners have a FAR better roster than the Panthers, you could argue coaching is far superior as well.

      Really all you can do is debate skill sets. That’s akin to saying Jeff Hostetler is better than Marino cuz he won a Super Bowl.

    2. You missed my point. Kaep has the edge with that because he did so with just half of a season as the starter under his belt.

      1. I was replying to the article, sorry for the confusion. I agree with you that considering how long he’s played Kap is more impressive.

  10. From scholastics and wonderlic scores, Kaep is more advanced. He is in his second year as a starter and working his way through it. Cam had to do the same thing last year. Let’s see how this last half of the season works out for both of these QBs. CK will finally have another trustworthy receiver, his stats should increse and the final four games he should have Crabtree (not the Crabtree of old though). It’s dumb to do mid season comparrisons when there is so much that can change. I mean a month ago we were wondering who was better, CK or Luck. At the start of the season CK was hands down better than Cam. So lets give it some time.

    1. To add I even remember Grant writing about the top 5 young QBs and he had CK ahead of Cam. So what happened? Did Cam get a lot better, CK a lot worse? Again, let’s see how things play out.

  11. I’m not sure if this has been brought up, but if you look at the immediate success that Andrew Luck has had compared to Cam, I think you can surmise that playing against top talent in a pro style offence in college greatly shortens the learning curve when moving to the NFL. Let’s give these young QBs at least 5 years in the NFL before we come to any conclusions…

  12. I don’t really care, Cam played more games. Both players are in there infancy stage of their career. It is not where you start, it is where you finished. After 5 or 10 years, that is when the picture will be clearer.

  13. This is the Cohn writing style, they always like to compare things, it gets old after a while, but will always read Lowell, if he discusses the Giants or Niners.

  14. I would definately say at this point in their careers it would be Cam, but, I think Kaep has a slightly higher ceiling than Cam. Kaep seems smarter, more accurate, and more mature. Let give Kaep another season under his belt and I think he will prove why he’s the better QB.

    Should be interesting.

    I must say I am very suprised at how well Panthers’ Defense is doing., however, the competition has been pretty low. I think this should be a good game. Even better if we win.

  15. Cam is a great athlete and a very good quarterback, however, he is not accurate.

    Collin is all the things Cam is and he is accurate with his passes.

    Also, I think Collin is faster.

    1. No need to think Leo, Kap IS faster, smarter and has the stronger arm, he is also more agile and a natural leader. There will be a zenith at some point where his natural skills match his experience and preparation. That will be something to see if Kap can really put all his potential together and perform as such. Cam in no slouch by any means, but I’m glad Kap is on my team.

      1. Steve smith and brandon lafell are better then boldin and kyle Williams.. and newton has over double the amount of starts then kap.. I think that has a lot to do with it also

  16. The hypocracy on this blog is mind boggling. People are for Kap over newton because his stats are worse but has a better win percentage. Stating that he is a winner. And those are the same people who say Alex smith, the winningest qb since 2011, sucks. Kinda funny isn’t it. Argue with what you want, but Kaps stats are marginal but he’s winning.
    Overall Kap and cam are similar but at the moment cam is a better qb. For all the reasons stated by grant. He’s a more polished passer in the pocket. Which has come with time. No doubt in my mind Kap will be better just not yet.

    1. Adam707,

      That is called Motivated Reasoning, when your beliefs over ride the facts… just another day here on Inside The 49ers!

    2. With you 100% Adam, mind boggling is the term I would use too. The most eager to prove anybody wrong, at any time, seem to have the most to hide, meaning contradicting themselves over and over.

      Entering turn 1, Newton ‘may’ have a miniscule lead in the accuracy department, other than that, IMO Kap is ahead, especially considering Cam has more than twice the amount of games played. To a young QB, that is paramount in the development of timing and reading defenses. Time on the field is how you get better.

    1. Not quite, J. According to an article I recently saw which noted each team’s most significant weakness, “Eventually, Colin Kaepernick will have to pass the ball. That is a problem, since he is the league’s least-accurate starter when under pressure.” That means he’s WAY behind in that category, and by a full head of hairs. But by the time he’s got as many games under his belt as Cam has, it may become a moot point. We hope.
      While Cam is Carolina’s best rusher with an average of 4.6 yards per carry, he also averages a loss of over 8 yards each time he’s sacked. That’s one place where Kaep has him beat right now.

  17. This is a completely unfair argument. Cam Newton has started 40 NFL games and Kaepernick has started all of 18 NFL games. When Cam first came into the NFL after his first 3/4 games he struggled. Why? Because defensive coordinators around the league start throwing different looks at you on defense and they start playing you different ways in order to limit how affective you can be. In his third year now Cam Newton is starting to blossom into a very good quarterback. He is making better decisions and he is playing better all around football. Kaepernick is just now going through this. He played great last year but now he is going through the stage where he must overcome the different looks that defensive coordinators are showing him each game. Patrick Willis mentioned this last week…He said Kaepernick is a great athlete and he works his butt off everyday but earlier this year he had to go through what most athletes including myself had to go through. He said when you first start playing you do great but there comes a period where you struggle because people scheme to make you ineffective and as a player you just have to learn and find ways to defeat these schemes. It is unfair to compare a player who has played in 40 games and gone through his fair share of ups and downs to a player who has played 18 games and experiences some ups and downs. I would expect a player with 40 starts to be ahead of a player with 18 starts in their development.

    You can say Kaepernick learned under harbaugh for 3 years but he hadn’t played in a real game situation until last year. Also, do we know how much time harbaugh spent mentoring Kaepernick. He wasn’t the starter so I would believe that Harbaugh spent more time mentoring Alex Smith than he did Kaepernick.

    I am of the opinion that Kaepernick is a better QB than Newton. I have seen Kaepernick show up in big games and play his butt off in the same way that I have seen Newton dwindle under the pressure of big games. Kaepernick has thrown more than 1 interception in 1 game in 18 starts. Newton on the other hand when he throws an interception in a game he goes on to thrown another one in the same game 50% of the time. I know people say that the 49ers made the playoffs last year because of the team not the QB but hose two playoff games that the 49ers won last year was mostly because of Kaepernick. The defense of the 49ers was not good during that playoff run and they gave 21, 24, and 26 points in the first half of three playoff games. Kaepernick threw a pick on the first possesion of his playoff game and I think we all know how that game ended. In his second playoff game he found himself down 17 points in the second quarter and he went on to win that game. In the superbowl he was down 22+ points in the second half and he came 5 yards from winning.

    You may say Cam Newton goes through his progressions better and maybe he does as he should but I don’t think Kaepernick lacks the ability to go through his progressions. Kaepernick’s problem is not his inability to go through his progressions but rather his unwillingness to do. Kaepernick often doesn’t trust his 3rd or 4th read because of the talent on the roster so he just doesn’t look their way. He’d much rather wait for Vernon Davis or Anquan Boldin to get open and if they don’t just run it himself than throw a pass to Kyle Williams. That is something he needs to fix however, because there have been times when Kyle Williams has been open and he just doesn’t look his way.

    As for Cam’s ability to run the 49ers offense and Kaepernick’s inability to run the panther’s offense…First off I don’t think that you can prove based on what the 49ers ask Kaepernick to do in their offense that he would be unable to run another offense. If the 49ers needed more from Kaepernick he would provide it as he has before. Also, the Seahawks handle Russell Wilson the same way that the 49ers handle Kaepernick. Mostly handing off to the running back and making a few plays in the passing game. Are you going to say that Cam Newton is a better QB than Russell Wilson? I don’t think anyone is going to say that. Are you going to say that Russell Wilson couldn’t operate the Panthers offense? I don’t think anyone is going to say that either.

    Lastly in terms of Completion % Cam Newton is above Kaepernick (64.4% to 57.1%)but I still think it is a little unfair to judge based off this stat. Mainly because Kaepernick attempts very few passes so there is very little margin for error in order for him to have a decent completion %. Also 16% of his passes are deep passes which is good for 3rd in the league. Andrew Luck had this same issue last year. He was asked to complete a lot of deep passes and his completion % suffered because of it and as a result he winded up completing 54% of his passes last year.

    I apologize for the long post but I just wanted to argue some of the points you made.

    1. Excellent points Jack. Written without noticeable bias or agenda.

      Kap is nearly as good or better than Cam in some areas with 22 less starts under his belt. As a greatly missed poster used to say, “all arrows up”!

  18. 2013 total QBR: Kap’s QBR- 75.2 Cam’s QBR- 59
    Cam’s 59 QBR is closer to Christian Ponder’s 51 QBR then it is to Kap’s 75.2.
    Just sayin’, folks.

  19. Just heard a crazy stat on ESPN radio, Dallas has been out gained 700 yards by their opponents this season. WOW. Their conclusion is that they are beating bad teams, and bad teams only. If they make the playoffs they aren’t going far.

    1. Not that I don’t agree with the overall assessment but I don’t see the connection between that stat, if it’s even legit, and the conclusion drawn from it.

      1. Well the conclusion I get from it is this: Usually when you win you out gain your opponents which I assume most of the time Dallas has when they have won. We also know Dallas hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record that means all of their losses have been to good teams who have dominated them in yards gained. Basically their defense can’t stop good teams and their offense can’t keep up.

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