On the McLaughlin Group on Sunday, the panelists were giving out year-end political awards, and Rich Lowry, the guy from the National Review last seen wiping starbursts off his khakis, gave one to Tim Tebow, for being the most exciting thing in American sports right now, or some such thing. It wasn't the first time in the last few weeks that the right wing had referenced Tebow (see Rick Perry), but it was the most effortlessly irritating instance. Tebow isn't the NFL's most exciting player. He's not even the league's most exciting first-year starter. There's another run-happy national-championship-winning quarterback who arrived on the professional scene this year, a guy whom Football Outsiders today called "a young Peyton Manning and a rookie Herschel Walker all rolled into one." It's not Tim Tebow—it's Cam Newton, and he, not Tebow, deserves to have pundits yammering about him on Sunday morning television.
In his rookie season, Newton has thrown for 3,893 yards (a rookie record) and 20 touchdowns, completing 60 percent of his passes. He has run for 674 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, with 14 touchdowns. He's 26th in the NFL in rushing yards, second in rushing touchdowns, and first (a fuzz ahead of Tebow) in yards per carry. He's ninth in passing yards, 12th in passing TDs, and ninth in yards per attempt. And yes, he's thrown 16 interceptions, which is the same number thrown by MVP candidate Eli Manning. By Football Outsiders' metrics, the Panthers have the fourth-best offense in the NFL (behind only New England, New Orleans, and Green Bay), and almost all of it runs through Cam Newton.
And that statistical case says little about the way Cam plays, which wows. He's noticeably big and strong and fast in a league where everyone is big and strong and fast. The ball leaves his hand the way it does Ben Roethlisberger's—forceful, booming. It's not a zippy or precise throw, and occasionally he'll chuck one into the club seats, but he's a rookie. He will get better. As a runner, he's too big to be tackled easily. He doesn't look like he runs all that quickly—perhaps he doesn't; at the combine, his 4.59-second 40-yard-dash time tied Jake Locker's—but he's terrifying in the open field. And when he's at the goal line, there seems to be no way of stopping Newton from scoring however he wants to score.
Cam is putting on the best show in the NFL during any given week—look at this run from Saturday, for example—and he's ignored, because, unlike Tim Tebow, his team doesn't have a good defense. Outsiders ranks the Panthers' D 30th. The Panthers lost their two best linebackers (Jon Beason and Thomas Davis) to injuries early in the season. Their defensive line has struggled all year. And their secondary isn't much better. Special teams? The Panthers unit is the worst in the league.
Despite all that, Carolina is a respectable 6-9. (And in three of those losses the Panthers held double-digit leads over the Packers, Falcons, and Lions—all playoff teams. Add in the last-second losses to Minnesota and New Orleans, and with a bit more luck, Carolina would have been a playoff team.) Meanwhile, the Broncos are doing everything they can not to finish 8-8, after back-to-back thwackings by the Patriots and Bills. Their offense ranks 23rd. Tebow's comebacks depended on luck and good defense, and Cam's Panthers had neither.
It seems that a couple factors contributed to the national shortchanging of Cam Newton. As far as I can tell, no Panthers game ever aired in New York or the Northeast, the big-time media hubs. So there's that. But looming even larger is Tim Tebow's convenience for the mind. One can use Tebow to tell any story; he is all things to all men. He is the scrappy kid who succeeded even though he couldn't throw; he is also the first-round pick who won a national championship and a Heisman. He's a role model to young men; he's also a demagogue. This goes on and on, and, however fatiguing, it will go on and on, especially if the Broncos win Sunday and make the playoffs.
Tim Tebow is the messiah for the sports-is-not-really-about-sports crowd. It's harder to turn Cam Newton into a metaphor—unless you're determined to keep fucking this particular chicken—so he'll remain buried under all the Tebow talk for a while. But where Tebow is the kind of player who has been phased out of the modern NFL, a throwback, Cam is a kind we've never seen before, a look at where we're going, not where we've been. Which one would you rather watch?