Can Cam Newton thrive in the long shadow of Tom Brady's New England?
Will Cam Newton become the next Randy Moss or the next Albert Haynesworth in New England? Will he be the spectacular quarterbacking version of 1,600-yard rushing Corey Dillon or a limping clone of bewildered Chad Ocho Cinco?
The success or failure of the first season of the post-Tom Brady Era in New England will quite likely be determined by the answer to those simple questions. Is the man who once called himself “Superman’’ ready to fly again, or will he continue being a victim of the crippling NFL kryptonite that is infirmity and age?
Five years ago, Newton was the talk of the NFL. He quite literally wore an “S’’ on his chest and played quarterback as if it belonged there. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2011 and MVP in 2015, a year in which he threw 35 touchdown passes and ran for another 10 scores on his way to leading the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a trip to the Super Bowl. But that Cam is not this Cam, which is why he is wearing red, white and blue rather than teal and gray this season.
In the years since 2015, Newton is 23-23 as a starter (although that is far from all his fault), has suffered with significant shoulder and foot injuries and was widely seen as damaged goods and a risk not worth taking by everyone in the NFL this offseason but Bill Belichick.
Yet one need only look back to the first half of 2018 to see the potential upside Belichick has wagered on. Coached by quarterback whisperer Norv Turner that year, Newton was more accurate than at any time in his career, completing 67 percent of his throws and going 6-2 before severely injuring his shoulder in Week 9 against the Steelers. That began what became a precipitous physical slide to first mediocrity and, two games into the 2019 season, a total shutdown.
By then Newton had undergone two shoulder surgeries and suffered a serious Lisfranc foot injury that left him with his throwing mechanics amok and his once feared upfield rushes a thing of the past. At 31 and due over $20 million this season, his time in Carolina was over against his will.
For three months Newton languished in the limbo of free agency, his phone seldom ringing, before Belichick called with a contract offer so undervalued it put the Patriots in a no-risk, high-reward situation when Newton agreed to terms. If Newton can’t play he costs them only $550,000 in guaranteed money. If he can, he might earn as much as $7.5 million, which would still be a bargain basement price, and the Patriots retained the right to franchise him at the end of the season if they can’t re-sign him before he hits free agency. This is the definition of a no-lose situation for Belichick, at least from an economics point of view.
At the moment, Newton’s contract ranks 53rd among his quarterbacking peers, and New England’s entire quarterback roster has the lowest cap value for that position. So while Belichick cannot know how much of a potential reward Newton will bring to his first Brady-less team in 20 years, he can be sure he has taken no financial risk bringing him in, either short term or long term.
As for Newton, he seems a man at peace with his lot in life, although ready to do what he can to prove his doubters wrong. Not long after signing Newton posted the following message: “This isn’t about money for me. It’s about respect.’’ File that under Internal Motivation 101.
Long known as a hard worker and born leader, Newton is a towering physical specimen. At 6-5, 247 pounds he is a mountainous figure at quarterback who when healthy has shown a remarkably powerful arm and produced more yards after contact than any active quarterback over the first eight seasons of his career, averaging 601 rushing yards and 7.25 rushing touchdowns from 2011-2018.
If healthy, Newton not only would go a long way toward filling New England’s post-Brady quarterback vacuum but would add a dimension the team has not had since the days of Steve Grogan. While Brady was the master of the quarterback sneak he seldom ran unless it was for his life. A healthy Newton, on the other hand, is a weapon who can stress defenses in ways Brady could not, adding a dimension to New England's offense that has not existed despite the Patriots' remarkable reign.
Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be free to tinker with their offensive system to add elements of the running game that quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson have used to turn the play-action pass into a bewildering creator of defensive indecision. The fact that Newton will be playing behind a far better offensive line than he had in Carolina, where he was often reduced to a punching bag due to the ineptitude of his blockers, only adds to the possibilities his arrival brings.
Belichick may well hope that Newton will arrive in New England ready to prove to the football world that rejected him that it made the same kind of mistake in 2007, when Belichick acquired wide receiver Randy Moss. Once the most feared receiver in football, Moss was also considered damaged goods, only to set an NFL record with 23 touchdown catches that season, fueling an offensive explosion in New England.
When the year ended, the Patriots had gone 18-1, not losing until the Giants upset them in the Super Bowl. Moss was a major part of that nearly record-breaking success.
Newton at his best, or even close to it, would be by far the best quarterback in the division and among the best in football. He would also afford the Patriots more varied and versatile offensive possibilities than a 43-year-old Brady. That is not to suggest, however, that Newton does not have massive shoes to fill at a time when the long-term health of his shoulder and ankle remain an unknown.
What is known is that Cam Newton was a low-risk chance to hit it big, the kind of gamble Bill Belichick has taken before with varied results. Certainly this is the biggest because Newton is replacing a legend who won six Super Bowls, led his team to nine and had his own “S’’ on his chest, although one he chose to beat far less often than the sometimes preening Newton.
What would add serious intrigue to this equation would be if Belichick opted to also sign Colin Kaepernick to back Newton under the theory that if the offense is to become more mobile this season that Kaepernick, rather than the untested Jarrett Stidham or career backup Brian Hoyer, could more readily step in without any adjustments.
The latter seems unlikely, however, in part because it seems Kaepernick is not inclined to return to pro football after a three-year absence and the recent announcement of a partnership deal between his production company and the Disney Company to produce films around the subjects of civil rights and social justice. But it would certainly add to the intrigue of what already figures to be one of the most interesting seasons in New England in quite some time.
In the end, however, the success or failure of this shotgun marriage between Cam Newton and the Brady-less Patriots will revolve around the health of his foot and shoulder and the team’s ability to successfully blend Newton’s unique skill set into an offensive system that has been remarkably successful over the past 20 seasons playing a style that is in many ways the opposite of Newton’s game.
That is the genius of Bill Belichick. He has never been a slave to a system and has shown a willingness to adapt to the talents of the players he has. If Cam Newton proves healthy enough to be one of those players, his athletic resurrection may come at a time when the New England Patriots’ offense is most in need of one as well.