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Purple Drank And The Secret Of NFL Quarterbacking

We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.

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From: Josh Levin
To: Tommy Craggs, Barry Petchesky

A few thoughts on Cam Newton's 16th professional start: First, if Newton hadn't thrown those three interceptions, his yardage total would've been less gaudy … and the Panthers might've won the game. As Nate pointed out last week, a 400-yard game is often the byproduct of late-game stat-padding. That huck to Steve Smith was amazing, but it came with less than two minutes to go and Carolina down by 14. Add some yardage to the pile, add another game to the loss column.


But a 500-foot home run when you're down by 10 is still a 500-foot home run. Newton's bomb, though meaningless scoreboard-wise, feels portentous. His ability to transform the Cardinals and Packers, at least for a few scattered moments, into Chattanooga and Ole Miss shouldn't seem this surprising. Cam Newton was the most dominant faux-amateur in recent memory, and he was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. The NFL, though, has a way of flattening physical advantages: In a league where everyone has elite strength and speed, nobody has elite strength and speed. Regardless of the "Harrison Bergeron" factor, the transition from college to pro quarterback is so difficult that we've come to expect can't-miss players to miss. It seems less likely for the top pick in the draft to become an All-Pro than to become the subject of a USA Today feature on the dangers of purple drank.


Though most of JaMarcus Russell's post-collegiate YouTube highlights come from gamers' Madden reels, he made some fantastic throws during his codeine-shortened NFL career. But long-term success as a pro quarterback is more about avoiding bad plays than it is about making great ones. A scoring drive requires a sequence of well-executed events—in today's NFL, that's typically a good throw, followed by another good throw, and then a third, fourth, and fifth good throw. One mistake ruins that steady progress toward the end zone. Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo can zing the ball to the perfect spot on a 10-yard out the same way that Drew Brees and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers can. The difference is that Brees and Brady and Rodgers don't spend entire games out-dumbing themselves.

Perhaps I shouldn't single out Mr. Romo as the exemplar of quarterbacking mediocrity. He did, after all, play the fourth quarter and overtime on Sunday with a broken rib and punctured lung. Since Jay Cutler was labeled a gutless coward for checking out of a playoff game with a busted knee, I guess it's only fair that Sunday's game is being called "Romo's redemption." Sports journalists all seem to agree that it's a bad idea to re-enter a game with a head injury. You're an American hero, though, if you play with a lung hole. Can someone please make me a giant, Sean Payton-esque chart so I know which injuries to valorize?


Barry, the thing I love about Week 2 is that teams start to reveal their true selves. The Lions seemed kinda, sorta fake after Week 1. Now it seems safe to talk about them as contenders. (The Lions!) On the other side, we can probably write off the Chiefs and Seahawks as Andrew Luck-chasing also-rans. What do you make of the silver-and-blue, and is there any other team that's surprised you with their goodness or badness?

Josh Levin is a Slate senior editor. You can e-mail him at, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

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