The consensus, of course, is that it was another coup for the clever Patriots as they patiently waited for Cam Newton’s price to come down. When his contract demands finally slid under their available money, New England pounced and added the former MVP – for one year, anyway.
Cam is a phenomenal athlete. Lamar Jackson notwithstanding, Newton may be the best pure athlete ever to play the quarterback position. It is, therefore, understandable that everyone’s expectations are that Newton will lead the storied New England franchise back to glory. If you have the world’s most athletic quarterback paired with football’s most inventive and flexible coaching staff, you could hardly expect anything less than great success.
Here, Gregg Rosenthal – a respected columnist for NFL.com – declares New England to be the perfect landing spot for Newton, predicting that the melding of Newton, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to be a marriage made in football heaven. I’m afraid, though, that I have a few concerns in that regard.
I have written about Newton before – most recently here. Let me summarize my read on the Patriot’s new quarterback.
All of his life, Cam has been the best athlete on the field – most of the time, he was far and away the best on either team. There can’t be anything as rewarding as being so gifted that all you have to do is show up and your team wins the game. Imagine trying to play against Cam in high school. Are you kidding me? Even the NCAA could rarely provide him a challenge. In his only season as a starter (for Auburn in 2010, in case you’ve forgotten), Cam lead the Tigers to a perfect 14-0 record and a National Championship – while carving his name on the Heisman Trophy.
It’s a great ride – and anyone who tells you that they wouldn’t love to experience all of that is probably lying. But there is a downside to it, too.
Sports in general – and football in particular – has always come very easily to Cam. I believe that the easiness of the sport is one of the things Newton loves most about football. It is evident in the way he carries himself on the field – his cocky smile and signature first-down point; his team photo ops while the game is going on; his preening and self-worshiping in the end zone after he scores – it’s almost as though the game of football was invented so that the world could stand in awe of the amazing talent that is Cam Newton. And he loves it that way. He likes football to come easily.
The problem in the NFL, though, is that wining isn’t always that easy. Even if you are a phenomenal talent, preparation and discipline are the hallmarks of enduring success. Certainly Tom Brady’s career in NE stands as a testimony to that. During his tenure in Foxboro, Tom frequently pointed out that most teams don’t have the will to practice as long and in such painstaking detail as the Patriots do.
This, frankly, isn’t a great cultural fit for Newton, whose mechanics have never been consistent and who is erratic going through his progressions. Details have never been Cam’s strong suit.
In the link provided above to the last time I wrote about Newton, I include this quote from him: “Sometimes you have to overcome coaching.” This is not an attitude that will play well with Belichick.
Now, it is possible that Foxboro will change Cam. Maybe under the storied Belichick glower, Cam will embrace the discipline of his profession. Maybe Belichick and McDaniels can finally harness all of Newton’s wonderful potential.
I, for one, will have to see it to believe it. Nothing about this arrangement suggests that a “humbled” Cam Newton is going to New England in the hopes of salvaging his career and re-inventing himself. It is evident – at least to this point – that he expects the Patriots to be grateful that they have him to save their season, and that he further expects them to do things the Newton way.
My expectation is that there will be some friction here. And this season of abbreviated camps will make the indoctrination of Newton an even more difficult task. I expect most of their preseason time together will be taken up in re-designing the offense to fit Newton.
Beyond the differing mindsets, the offensive line that Newton will be working behind is also an issue. In his article, Rosenthal referred to “one of the league’s best and most stable offensive lines.” I don’t think he was watching them last year.
While during most of their amazing run the Patriot offensive line was usually among the league’s elite units, that certainly was not true last year. In fact, New England’s greatest offensive deficiency last year was the ineffectiveness of its offensive line.
Always able to morph into a dominant running team when they needed or wanted to, last year the Patriot running game stumbled to eighteenth in the NFL, averaging just 3.8 yards per rush. Additionally, quarterback Brady led the NFL in passes thrown away with 40. Some of those were situations where no receiver was open. Mostly though, these were times Brady managed to get the ball out of his hand before taking a sack as his line repeatedly allowed free runners into the backfield. Make no mistake about it, there was little to like from the New England offensive line last year.
This is a bigger point than many realize. In Newton’s one superior year (2015), he was playing behind Ron Rivera’s run-first offense. Those Panthers ran the ball 32.9 times a game (in contrast to 30.9 passes a game) for 142.6 rushing yards per game (Cam accounting for 8.3 of the rushes and 39.8 of the yards). The attempts were the most in football, and the yards were second most. Off of the running game, Cam tallied a career-best 99.4 passer rating and led Carolina to the Super Bowl.
Once there, the Panthers went pass-happy, and the Superman cape came off. Cam finished just 18 of 41 for 265 yards, threw one interception, was sacked six times and lost two fumbles.
While Belichick could certainly fix his offensive line (and offensive lines have been known to improve dramatically from one year to the next), it’s hard to imagine Bill running the ball 30-35 times a game. Newton’s career passer rating is a pedestrian 86.1. Unless Cam undergoes a significant re-invention, a game plan that calls for 40 or so passes a game from him will likely result in few wins.
There is also the injury situation to consider. Cam has been beaten up a lot over the recent years. But his game is his legs, so he’s not likely to morph into a stationary, pocket passer. Because he is a running quarterback, his 31-year-old body will continue to be exposed to significant punishment – increasing the likelihood of further injury issues.
All of the hoopla surrounding the signing of Newton might lead one to believe that the problem last year was Brady – which is ironic, because Tampa Bay is hailing Brady as the answer. Tom didn’t have a bad year in 2019. The offense struggled around him. There is little reason to expect Newton to provide a real upgrade. Cam brings a mobility aspect to the position that Brady doesn’t possess. But Newton won’t run the passing attack with Brady’s skill.
In all honesty, few people will ever run a passing attack with Tom Brady’s skill.
If, indeed, major league baseball can stay a step ahead of the virus and start their season in a couple of weeks, then I expect to return to the normal discipline of about 5 columns a week starting around August third. Frankly, though, both the upcoming baseball and football season are far from certain.