On Sunday, two of the most electric young guns in the NFL will come together to do battle. The San Francisco 49ers, featuring Colin Kaepernick, will be heading to North Carolina to play Cam Newton and the Panthers. The winner will be heading to the NFC championship game while the loser heads home. Both teams are rosters with no gaping problems, but the focus heading into the game will be squarely on the two trigger men.
Visually, Newton and Kaepernick operate in much the same manner. Both men have the ability to make huge plays in both the passing and the running game. Newton makes more big plays on the stats sheet, but then again, he also makes more negative plays as well.
As a team, the 49ers and Panthers are nearly carbon copies of each other. Both teams lack top tier passing attacks while running the ball exceptionally well. Both teams play great defense, winning many of their games in the old-fashion control the clock and play defense style.
Because Newton and Kaepernick are so similar on paper, and their respective teams are equally as similar on paper, we have to resort to considering non-statistical observations when considering which player is better suited to winning their team a championship.
If we start with intangible qualities, there’s no question that Kaepernick has been a rock for the San Francisco 49ers, even when he was serving as Alex Smith’s backup. Kaepernick has been a pro since entering the league. Rarely, if ever, have we ever been able to look at his actions and declare he needs to do better.
The same can’t be said of Newton, but to his credit, he’s turned it around this season. In his first two years in the league, it wasn’t uncommon to see Newton sulking on the bench after yet another late game interception that sealed the Panthers’ fate. He looked like a quarterback with all the talent in the world, but he lacked the mental strength to make it in the NFL.
Maybe it’s because the Panthers have been winning nearly all year, but Newton has turned that perception completely into the past. This year, he’s been a strong leader for his team, but I have to wonder how he’d handle a slow start in a big game. Because of that past instability, we have to give the hat tip to Kaepernick in the intangible areas of the game.
Next, we have to consider athleticism. Although Newton accounts for more yards through the air and on the ground than Kaepernick does, he may not be quite as athletic and quick with the ball as is Kaepernick. Still, the two quarterbacks operate in much the same manner from the pocket, and any difference is marginal at best. Although Kaepernick may be a step quicker, debating which is more athletic is like debating which cheetah you want taking the snaps for your team. It really doesn’t matter, and it’s practically a draw.
Finally, we come to simple skill. As previously mentioned, Newton accounts for more yards and touchdowns than does Kaepernick, but Newton throws the ball and runs more often than Kaepernick. Again, it’s a very close battle, but San Francisco has more weapons surrounding Kaepernick than the Panthers have been able to put around Newton, and despite this, we see more production from Newton. Even if we look at a blanket statistic such as passer rating, Newton’s 88.8 he earned this season is just barely below Kaepernick’s 93.8, and the difference in offensive weaponry likely explains why Newton trails Kaepernick. In short, the Panthers need Newton more than the 49ers need Kaepernick.
So, which young quarterback is “better?” Although they’re extremely similar on paper, Newton is a better quarterback on the field, but his past tantrums also seem to indicate he may not be the pillar that Kaepernick is for the 49ers in the face of adversity. Both players have more than enough talent to lead their teams to a championship, but Newton has been able to better harness his own talent in 2013. He’s limiting his mistakes better than ever while maximizing the players he has around him. Kaepernick is efficient, but he doesn’t bust games open in the same way that Newton does. He allows his playmakers on offense to help him push the 49ers offense up and down the field, and there’s no problem with that. Newton just has to do it without that added support.