Peyton Manning and Cam Newton: Distinctly different and successful

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.


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.


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.


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

This article has 125 Comments

  1. Good article Grant, although I think the Panthers defense will be keeping an eye on Manning after his surprising scramble for a first down against the Patriots.

        1. Aw, crap. Think I might have put this under the wrong one… Can’t blame this on the blog either I just f’d it up.

  2. Guys tell me if I’m being silly but I stopped liking Peyton Manning after he publicly called out the stadium scoreboard guy for soliciting noise from the crowd while the Broncos were on offense. I understand it was a faux pas and he needed to be corrected but not publicly. I just thought it was lame for a Hall of Fame quarterback to publicly shame a staff member who probably works for peanuts and has a family. Peyton has such a clean image but that was just mean, I thought.

  3. Gabriel-I can see your point of view and I’m pro working man but in the heat of the moment I can understand how it occurred….not quite as bad as Ditka breaking a fans jaw. Now I’m gonna go silly and suggest Peyton looks like he’s going Elvis in Vegas in that photo .

    1. That’s an empathetic way to look at it, hightop. Speaking of empathy, I was aware of the gum incident but not the broken jaw – was it a cowboys fan? Violence is never ok but I might be able to empathize with Ditka just a little. Haha just kidding kind of.

      Rod Beck is smiling down on your Elvis in Vegas comment.

      1. In 2013 Jonthan Banks, Slay’s teammate and fellow CB on the team was projected to go higher in the draft. I predicted that Slay was the better of the two and that he would in fact be drafted before Banks and so far both have been correct.

        Que the ‘stopped watch’ comments. :) Or as my Uncle used to say; “If you have #7hit for brains luck will have to do.

        1. Slay is a good example of why you should wait 3 years to evaluate a rookie. The second part of that prediction wasn’t so solid until this past season.

  4. Manning will lose this game, and his career postseason record will be 13-14. In many, many of these losses, Peyton threw game-changing interceptions late in games, most recently in 2012, when he tossed one against the Ravens, I believe, in the morning game on the same day Kaep went bananas against Green Bay.

    Manning is the regular season paradigm. He is not a clutch performer, however, not like the great ones. Newton is an all-time great clutch performer. He wins at every level, and when it’s time to win the big one, he comes through in the biggest way.

    This game won’t be close. Denver has a great defense, but the Broncos pass rush will be neutralized by the Panthers OL, and Newton will have a field day.

    Sayonara, Sheriff. The day you’re no longer in the NFL, with your dadgum, awe-shucks Papajohnny commercialism and your overrated skills, can’t come soon enough. Eli is the better Manning anyway.

    1. Silicon,

      I was tracking with you until you said something positive about Eli Manning. EM should have zero SB’s. He’s an above average QB, nothing more.

  5. It was a good read, I agree. It was skillfully done. I like these kinds of articles a lot better than the ones that come from sponge bob snarky pants.

    1. It was a good read and an indication of what Grant can do when he’s not trying to copy his Father. Be your own man Grant.

        1. I’m referring to the tone of the opinion pieces you write. You are trying to be a carbon copy of the old man instead of forging your own style.

            1. What can I say Grant? I see you trying to imitate your Father and it comes off as ultracrepidarian. You are much more interesting and credible when you do info pieces like this and the one you did for SI imo.

  6. Interesting. You say that Manning is only a pocket passer, yet during the AFCCG, he rolled to his right and surprised the Pats, then threw a first down pass.
    Maybe the old dog has a few more tricks up his sleeve.
    I think Payton Manning will rely on his defense to harry and harass Cam into making errors.
    He will win his last rodeo, and ride off into the sunset a winner.
    Denver, 27-23.

  7. The 49ers should learn from the Panthers success. Cam became the passer he became because of protection and the formidable defense. He was a pedestrian QB prior to that. Good QB protection and a stifling defense covers up a lot of holes (Ted Ginn).

    1. I think maybe the panthers learned from the niners earlier success, but needless to say we lost a o of key pieces and need to re-build that same formula

  8. Grant – An excellent piece with many cogent comments and a very good analysis of the current skills and talents of the two QBs. Well written.

  9. Nice article…. I like how you found a way to throw Kaepernick in their… Newton is a lot thicker than Kap, seems like Kap has to work harder to add bulk to his frame, Newton is just beastly, TE build. That said Kap can take some punishment, but can’t dish out like Cam.

    Hopefully Kap can get it together under Chip’s tutelage.

    1. Leo,

      It’s funny because Cam’s numbers last year were on par with Kaps and there was never any talk of Cam not being able to play. This year he took a huge step forward with his passing numbers, mainly in TD’s, and part of it has to do with great Oline protection and the running game, but Cam also learned to play more patiently from the pocket imo. That is what is holding Kap back.

      1. yeah I remember Barrows making mention of that same thing, but Newton’s downfield passing has continued to get better, while Kap seems to have regressed. Could be confidence, system, mechanics, but probably all 3. I still think he can turn it around with Chip, but he can’t do it by himself, we need to put him in a good situation, get our defense back up to snuff, along with our o-line.

    2. Cam Newton is a big dude, but I’ve said it many times before; he’s one hit away from being Daunte Culpepper. His game/their offense is completely predicated on his running ability. I tip my hat to them for putting blinders on and going for a Super Bowl, though.

      1. I suggested a few years ago Colin Kaepernick was one hit away from being a Jim Druckenmiller. It did not go over well.

        (To be honest I also praised Harbaugh/Baalke for drafting CK, and didn’t object too strongly when he was named the starter)

        1. Druckenmiller had no business being in the NFL. Do you remember his workout highlight tape? He was pulling a car or a tractor or some b.s. It’s even funnier now to think about it. Such an odd fit for the team. He was Dwight Clark’s pick. The funny thing is that when Clark went to Cleveland, he selected Tim Couch with the #1 overall pick. Walsh’s top rated QB that year? Daunte Culpepper.

          1. During one of Druckenmiller first practices, Jerry Rice went out for a short pass… the kind Montana and Young used to float out there with perfect timing.

            Druckenmiller hurled a Nolan Ryan fastball at the great wide receiver with all his might. He was only a few yards away, and the missile smashed up one of Jerry’s fingers. There were gasps of incredulity among the players watching.

            Druckenmiller then shouted at Rice something to the effect of “Gotta be ready for The Druck.”

            1. I remember one of the coaches using the term ‘Howitzer’ when referencing his arm strength. He was a complete meathead. I could see him alluding to himself as ‘The Druck’, while smashing an empty beer can against his forehead. I’m sure Rice was entertained.

        1. Old Coach,
          Tom Brady got Culpeppered and he’s still Tom Brady because running has never been a component of his success as a QB. Running is the biggest component of Cam’s success at this stage of his career. If he couldn’t run due to injury that team would struggle. That’s why ex-players turned announcers cringe at the amount of contact he takes. I’m not knocking him, I think he’s been exceptional this year. He’s one of those guys whose effectiveness as a QB would be fundamentally altered for the worse if he were to lose his current level of mobility.

  10. Kaep does not have the football sense that Cam has. I still can’t get passed that game where Kaep was on his own 2 yard line against Arizona.He does not even look at the line of scrimmage, if he did he would see a wide open Torrey Smith. Got to be one of the most embarrassing plays of all time.

  11. Looking at both teams, it is great matchup between 2 good QBs, but the main reason both are in the SB is the play of Luke Kuechly and Von Miller. Defense wins championships, and both teams have elite defenses.
    Does not hurt to have good O lines, either.

    1. “But it does lead me to believe the 49ers had the wrong idea about where the franchise was headed and were, in fact, rather ignorant of their own shortcomings well into the thick of the regular season.” … James Brady

      Boy did they ever, and it wasn’t just Tomsula either.

  12. This SB will be the contrast between the grizzled veteran and the young upstart. I hope Vernon gets a ring, but I also want Ted Ginn to do well, too.

    1. I like Vernon, even though he’s a head case. I’d be happy if he wins a ring. Be happier if he won one in SF but oh well.

  13. So the salary cap guy over at NN wrote an article projecting a contract for Alex Boone. He says he would not pay Boone “Lupati” money of around $8 million per year. The conventional wisdom is that Boone is all but gone, but if it were up to him, he’d offer a 4-year deal worth $22 million with $8 million guaranteed.

    But consider this: Boone can play any of the guard or tackle spots. He served as Staley’s backup last year. Given the problems that the team had with the OL, wouldn’t it make sense to keep a guy who can play any of the guard or tackle positions at a high level. Lupati got big money last year and he isn’t nearly as versatility. Maybe the question is: What is the premium for that kind of versatility?

    1. I personally thought letting Iupati walk for nothing was a crying shame. He wasn’t the best pass protector but he was a beast in the run game. He’s only 28 yearsold and was coming into his own.
      With Boone like you said versatile, mean and can play anywhere in either tackle or guard spots. Considering how bad our line is, you gotta resign him because letting him walk and relying on a rookie is not a good plan.
      Maybe free agency is the way to go if you can’t sign Boone.

              1. Why? Compared to Bradford, Goff runs like Secretariat.

                I heard recently that Kelly’s zone/read is more about the threat of quarterbacks running that actual QB runs.

                Goff ran an extremely high tempo offense at Cal. I think he’d fit in nicely in any system, except one that tried to turn him into a running back. He’s too skinny.

              2. Goff is a thin pocket passer. He should be protected in the pocket. He won’t hold up running the zone read. He isn’t fast enough to run it, anyway.

              3. Goff is no way, no how, ready to play at the NFL level. Should have stayed in school another year….

              4. Bradford was getting better as the season wore on. Goff would fit the system fine as the key is getting rid of the ball quickly and accurately which he is adept at.

              5. Goff ran a dink n dunk, gimmicky offense. He will get destroyed at the NFL level. He’s not ready….

              6. Razor,

                There was no benefit to Goff going back to school. He started three full seasons and has gone as far as he can in that offense. He needs to get into an NFL system and start learning another way to play. I agree he won’t be ready to start right away, but you continue to underestimate this kid. He’ll be ready sooner than most QB’s in this class.

              7. Goff ran a dink n dunk, gimmicky offense. He will get destroyed at the NFL level. He’s not ready….

                No, actually there was a lot of downfield throwing. He’s one of the most accurate deep passers I’ve seen in a long time.

              8. Cal’s run game and their short passing game helped set up their occasional deeper throws. Their style offense is in no way similar to a NFL style offense. Goff had some plays that required a full field read, but the majority of his passes were half field quick passes. Grant already pointed out his physique….

              9. Razor,

                Goff was their offense. The HC gave him almost complete control on the field and much more than other QB’s usually get. He called plays and protections. He moves well in the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield. He is extremely accurate and has great touch on his throws.

                I have no idea why you are so down on the kid, but we are at opposite ends of the spectrum in regards to his abilities and pro prospects.

              10. One game I charted, he threw 37 passes. Of those 37 throws, only 8 went further than 10 yards downfield. I’ve looked closely at those throws, and his ball placement to me was average. Often he’d throw behind a wide open receiver who wasn’t any further than 10 yards away. He could get away with that because of the Cal offense, but in the NFL, he will not….

              11. I would add that I’m not a fan of a true junior quarterback entering the draft. Success rate is not good. Why? They end up not being as good as you thought, and they’re not physically or emotionally ready to compete against the men that play in the NFL….

              12. Razor,

                In the article you can clearly see by the chart that he had a lot of downfield throws and his accuracy was excellent. He is accurate at all levels of the field in fact.

                The Junior QB problem is usually because the Junior QB hasn’t started more than a couple of seasons; not because he’s a Junior. In this case, Goff has started for 3 full seasons, so the playing time and amount of starts is equal to most Senior QB’s who are drafted.

                He’s the best QB in this class and I think he has a very good chance to be a top ten QB in this league a few years from now provided he doesn’t get put in a situation where he takes a beating right out of the gate.

              13. Unless he’s drafted by a team that can sit him for a year, he’ll probably fail. In today’s NFL, it’s increasingly more difficult to get away with that due to pressure on the HC and player. Case in point, Blake Bortles. Plus, I believe a quarterback should be in college a minimum of 4 years before ever entertaining thoughts of the NFL….

    1. Just saw that on Sporting News. Looks like Kaepernick doesn’t care who the new 49ers coach is and whether his system could benefit him.

  14. I can only hope this is true. Seb will abandon ship and we will see him on the 6 o’clock news standing on the golden gate.

    1. Naw, I will still be a Niner fan. If Kaep goes, I guess he had good reasons to want to leave. Let me tell you, through personal experience, getting stabbed in the back is painful.

        1. Promising that if he would sign that extremely team friendly contract, they would re-sign veteran talent, then letting everyone leave was a stab in the back. Leaking that Gabbert studied 4 to 5 times more than Kaep, stabbed him in the back. Banishing Kaep from the side line was a big insult.
          Chip had every opportunity to praise Kaep and kept on bringing up Gabbert. Kaep, being damned with faint praise, probably felt like he was stabbed in the back.

  15. New York, Cleveland and Oakland.
    Places where careers die! Adios ck. Wait for the New York fans to really light you up!

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