They line up in shotgun formation. One stands like a parent playing catch with his 2-year-old son. Leans forward to make the snap as short as possible. Spreads his feet wide and extends his arms toward the center. Big target. You can do it, buddy.
The other one leans back and waits for the snap with one foot behind the other, torso partially turned away from the defense, concealing part of himself. A gunslinger posing before a duel. Glaring under the brow of his cowboy hat.
One points frenetically at players on the other team and yells dummy cadences and double cadences to force the defense to reveal what it intends to do — “Black! Black eigh-ty! We’regoodwe’regood! Om-a-ha…set!” The defense flinches. Tips its hand. Then he changes the play. “Ninety-one heat! White Eigh-ty! Whiteeightyset!”
The other one stands and waits. Waits for his offense to get set. Waits for the play clock to run down. Waits for the world to wait for him. Then shouts, “Readyyyyyyyyyyy … go!”
One is Peyton Manning. One is Cam Newton. One was the top pick in 1998. One was the top pick in 2011. One is the old-style of quarterback. One is the new style. Both are playing in Super Bowl 50. This is what you need to know about them.
WHAT THEY SEE
As Manning flails his arms and shrieks commands before a play, he’s reading. Reading the defense. Forcing it to reveal what coverage it’s using and what blitz it might be bringing.
Based on that information, Manning audibles. Calls the best play possible, run or pass — whichever defeats what the defense is doing. No one does this better than Manning.
Why is Manning so good? Three reasons.
Manning has played in the league for 18 seasons and has seen every coverage disguise and blitz disguise in existence.
Manning studies film as thoroughly as a coach. Always has.
The coverages Manning sees are more complex than the coverages most quarterbacks face, and they never faze him.
Manning doesn’t move. He’s a classic drop-back passer who throws from one spot in the pocket and everyone knows it.
The defense doesn’t have to worry about Manning running — they know exactly where he will be all the time. Which means defensive backs can chase receivers downfield man-to-man and turn their backs on Manning. He won’t scramble.
On any given play, Manning could face man coverage, zone coverage or a combination of the two. He could face a double A-gap blitz or a zone blitz or a safety blitz. He could face anything. That’s why he has to dissect the defense before the play even happens. Call it survival.
Newton doesn’t have to do what Manning does to survive. Newton stands there and lets the defense look at him. Lets the players stare at his 6-foot-5, 245-pound body and worry about how they’re going to bring down this giant if he keeps the ball and runs. Lets the defense psyche itself out.
Newton is bigger and faster and stronger than the linebackers who try to tackle him. He can run around them, or he simply can run over them. He is the most dangerous running quarterback in the NFL, maybe ever. He is what Colin Kaepernick was supposed to be.
Like Kaepernick, Newton has a rocket arm. But, opposing defenses primarily worry about him running. So, they use simple, easy-to-dissect coverages to defend the Panthers’ passing game.
Newton primarily faces simple zone coverages. Why? Because no one turns their back on the quarterback in zone coverage. Every defender faces the pocket and keeps one eye on the man with the ball.
The rare times an opposing defense uses some type of man coverage against Newton, that coverage usually involves a “quarterback spy” whose sole job is to follow Newton wherever he goes, even if he goes nowhere.
These types of coverages create huge throwing windows downfield for Newton, who often completes passes to wide-open targets. Easy read.
HOW THEY THROW
Manning used to have the best arm in football. He could make any throw to any part of the field. As recently as two seasons ago, he completed 68.3 percent of his passes and averaged 8.3 yards per pass attempt. He had accuracy and arm strength.
Now, he has neither. This season, he completed 59.8 percent of his passes and averaged only 6.8 yards per attempt.
Manning’s diminished abilities are due to nerve damage he suffered from undergoing several neck and spine surgeries in 2011. The damage eroded Manning’s passing skills so greatly he no longer can throw far downfield.
During the 2015 regular season, Manning completed only 10 of 42 passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s 23.8 percent. Definitely not Peyton Manning-esque.
On throws that traveled between 10 and 19 yards, Manning completed only 43 percent of his passes. Still not good.
The Broncos’ passing game has become almost entirely horizontal. Manning throws screens and quick out-routes and slants and stick routes to the tight end. Basically, Denver’s passing game has become the West Coast Offense with Manning playing the role of an old, past-his-prime Joe Montana. Throwing short passes and relying on receivers to pick up yards after the catch. Manning has to plant and drive into these short throws. Has to get his whole body into them or else they flutter and dive.
Newton has the arm Manning used to have. Actually, Newton’s arm might be even stronger than Manning’s was. Like Manning, Newton can make any throw, but Newton doesn’t have to set his feet. Doesn’t have to plant and drive. He simply powers the ball flatfooted or with his feet splayed.
Some say Newton’s freak arm strength is his only gift as a passer. Some say Newton is not accurate. He completed only 59.7 percent of his passes this season — a lower percentage than Manning.
Here’s the difference: Manning throws most of his passes within a 10-yard range, while Newton throws downfield much more often. And he’s good at throwing downfield.
Newton is like a basketball player who shoots a lot of 3-point shots. His overall field-goal percentage is low because he’s shooting far away from the basket, but his 3-point shooting percentage is high. And that’s all that matters.
Any basketball player who makes at least one out of three 3-point shots is a good 3-point shooter. And any quarterback who completes at least four out of nine downfield throws is an accurate downfield thrower. We’re talking 44.4-percent completions on passes that travel at least 20 yards downfield.
This season, Newton’s adjusted completion percentage on deep passes (which accounts for seven dropped passes) is 47.9 — fourth-best in the NFL.
WHAT THEY DO BEST
At this point in Manning’s career, his greatest asset is his brain. He can’t run or throw well, but he’s the best play-caller and offensive coordinator as quarterback in the NFL.
Not only does he dissect a defense and call plays at the line of scrimmage during the game, he also helps offensive coaches game plan for the opponent during the week. Manning even identifies down-and-distance tendencies of the other team while his bosses take notes.
Manning also makes schematic adjustments on the sideline during games and in the locker room during halftime. When the Panthers face Manning this Sunday, they’ll have to stop someone who’s more of a coach than a quarterback.
When the Broncos face Newton, they’ll have to stop someone who’s more of a running back than a quarterback.
That’s not to say Newton can’t pass. He’s an excellent passer, especially down the field. But passing isn’t what he does best. His ability to run, either by design or improvisation, is his greatest asset.
Almost everything the Panthers do on offense revolves around the threat of Newton running. He’s the best running back on the team. He’s even better than the actual running back, Jonathan Stewart, who’s good. Stewart is just not the guy defenses fear in the Panthers backfield.
They fear Newton. As they should. The Panthers are a run-first offense with the greatest volume of running plays in the NFL, and a big portion of those plays feature Newton. Plays like the zone read, the QB draw, the QB power, the QB counter gap, the QB sweep, the QB dive, various naked rollouts and bootlegs, plus QB sneaks on third-and-short, fourth-and-short and near the goal line.
The opposing defense must commit to stopping those plays first and foremost. Once it commits, Newton uses play action to find open receivers downfield for big plays. Checkmate.
Newton almost is impossible to defend. Manning is relatively easy to defend, but almost impossible to confuse. They are opposite expressions of greatness competing for the same prize. Game on.
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.