Even in the middle of June amidst a global pandemic, the New England Patriots have found yet another way to dominate Sunday headlines. In a very unexpected move, the Patriots signed former NFL MVP Quarterback Cam Newton to a 1 year contract worth up to $7.5 million last Sunday night. After months of speculation, this deal may come as a surprise to Patriots fans, as many believed Newton wasn't a fit for Bill Belichick's team philosophy or Josh McDaniels' offensive scheme. As the news settled in, Newton’s role with the Patriots has been speculated to be anything between a training camp cut to becoming the official successor to Tom Brady. And while no one knows exactly what the team's plans are for him, I’ll examine realistic possibilities below regarding Newton’s role and future with the Patriots.
How healthy is Cam Newton?
Health will likely be the biggest question mark surrounding Cam Newton heading into next month's training camp. In the years since his historic 2015 MVP season and Super Bowl appearance against the Denver Broncos, Newton has been cursed with the injury bug. In Week 4 of the 2016 season, he suffered a concussion against the Atlanta Falcons after taking a hard hit to the head from Linebacker Deion Jones while trying to scramble into the end zone on a 2-point conversion. Later that season against the then San Diego Chargers, Newton suffered a painful rotator cuff tear. Despite this, Cam did go on to play the Panthers' final three regular season games before undergoing shoulder surgery that offseason, with the expectation being that he'd be fully healthy for training camp.
Following his injury-riddled 2016 campaign, Newton went on to play all 16 games the following season, all while leading the Panthers to a 11-5 record. This signaled a massive turnaround from the team's dismal 6-10 showing the previous year. However, despite all this optimism, Newton then suffered a Grade 1 knee strain during the Wild Card round against the New Orleans Saints. Despite his MRI results confirming both ligament and cartilage damage, as well as extensive swelling, Newton elected not to have offseason surgery.
In Week 7 of the 2018 season, Newton suffered a second shoulder injury during a matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles. Prior to sustaining the injury, the Panthers held a 4-2 record and found themselves in the middle of a tight race for the NFC South Title. With his team battling for a playoff spot, Newton again opted to play through injury; both Cam's personal performance and Carolina's fortunes suffered as a result, as the Panthers dropped 6 of their next 8 games. The team was 6-8 before Newton was finally shut down for the last 2 games of the regular season. For the second time in three years, he then underwent offseason surgery.
Last season, Newton sustained a left foot injury during a preseason game against none other than...the New England Patriots. This injury was re-aggravated during a Week 2 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; unable to continue to play through the immense pain, he then missed the rest of the regular season. As we know now, that would be Cam Newton's final appearance for the Carolina Panthers.
Today, Newton appears to be as close to healthy as ever, as evidenced by his daily workout videos posted to Instagram. One might even argue that he looks to be in the best shape of his entire career. Direct knowledge of Newton's health has been kept secret, however, so any idea as to how he'll look once he's back under center is merely speculation. It does stand to reason that, if the Patriots signed him this late into the off-season, they have an idea that Newton is at least 80% healthy. We'll all find out for certain very soon, however, as training camp is right around the corner at this point.
Newton isn’t guaranteed the starting job yet
Minutes after Adam Schefter broke the news that Cam Newton had reached an agreement with the New England Patriots, Newton instantly became ingrained as the team's starting Quarterback by fans and media alike. And, while it is very exciting to sign a former NFL MVP who has the opportunity to prove himself still reliable, he hasn’t won the starting job just yet.
Prior to last Sunday's news, second year Quarterback Jarrett Stidham was expected to be New England's starter come Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins. Despite what has been said publicly, both Bill Belichick and Patriots fans likely know that veteran Brian Hoyer wasn’t brought back to the organization this past March to compete for and secure the starting job. Rather, Hoyer’s role was likely to be one of mentorship to Stidham, along with serving as his backup in the event of early struggle or injury. He was never intended to be the answer.
Due to Hoyer being the main threat to Stidham securing the starting role, both media and fans alike thought the job was his by default. Perhaps they should have thought twice - Bill Belichick was never going to just hand the keys to the most important position on the field over to Jarrett Stidham, at least not without first providing him with some legitimate competition. Even if Belichick does believe in Stidham as much as has been reported, he'll want to see how the young QB responds to both adversity and a legitimate challenger for his supposed role. And, if you look at Cam Newton’s Instagram posts over the past three months, he's been begging teams to simply give him an opportunity, a chance to compete. Newton knows he might not be a franchise Quarterback anymore and that this may be his final chance at starting in the NFL. Conversely, Bill Belichick realizes that, by bringing a fully motivated Cam Newton into the fold, he could actually help further Jarrett Stidham’s progression and bring out the best in both Quarterbacks.
Over the course of the Belichick era, very rarely is an incumbent safe from internal competition. One of the prime examples of this is when the Patriots signed veteran Rodney Harrison prior to the 2003 season. At the time, Lawyer Milloy was still regarded as one of the best safeties in the league. Both Milloy and Harrison were accustomed to being starters, yet found themselves spending all of training camp competing for a starting spot in the Patriots' secondary. Harrison in particular was said to be quite aggressive during that time, often starting fights with teammates. On Rodney Harrison's episode of "A Football Life," which covered his life and career, he was often seen talking trash to Tom Brady and even started a fight with Kevin Faulk after delivering a big hit during a scrimmage. Belichick could only smirk, apparently pleased with the level of intensity Harrison brought to practice, the way he treated it as if it were a game. Harrison became a team captain in his first year with New England.
Another notable instance of Belichick's mentality towards team-building and competition took place in 2014, when he drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round. Supposedly, Tom Brady felt threatened and angry that the Patriots felt it was a priority to draft his potential successor at that point. In fairness, the Patriots had gone nearly 10 years without winning a title at the time and many believed the dynasty was beginning to crumble. Whatever nerve Belichick may have struck, it clearly paid off, as Brady worked harder than ever and wound up leading the Patriots to four of the next five Super Bowls, winning three of them. During that period, Tom's nutritional habits and exercise routine, now known as the TB12 Method, became highly publicized, while Garappolo was eventually traded to San Francisco in 2017.
Honestly, the list can go on and on when it comes to Belichick looking to provide competition in order to get the most out of his players. Simply put, Belichick wants to see Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham bring out the best of each other and prove who wants the starting job more, thus improving his team's fortunes at the Quarterback position at the same time.
What are the chances Newton is the Week 1 Starter?
One would have to think that the odds of Cam Newton starting Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins are pretty strong at this time. If Jarrett Stidham struggles at all in training camp or preseason, while Newton shows he’s healthy and capable of playing like his old self, Belichick will have no problem proceeding with Cam under center. Remember, Stidham has yet to start an NFL game and the Patriots may not want to rush him onto the field in such a capacity yet.
Of course, this is all just speculation at this point, as we really don't know how things will unfold. We may find out any day now that Newton is still nowhere near 100 percent. He could re-aggravate his injury, either during training camp or the preseason. By the same token, Stidham could always sustain an injury himself, making Newton the team's starter by default. Either way, it will be quite exciting to see a legitimate competition at Quarterback position for the first time in 20 years, as it makes training camp an absolute must watch.
How will the media portray Cam Newton?
Cam Newton has long faced media scrutiny, dating back to his time at Auburn. Heading into the 2011 NFL Draft, Newton faced questions about his supposed "character issues" and his overall commitment to football. Many scouts and experts believed that Newton was a player who didn’t work hard enough and wasn’t fully committed to football; these whispers persisted after Newton said during a draft interview that he viewed himself not only as a football player, but also as an entertainer and icon.
During his tenure in Carolina, Newton was constantly questioned by the media regarding what they perceived as arrogance or ego, as well critiqued over his pre and post game interview wardrobe choices. Over the years, his vibrant and unusual fashion taste has stood out from that of other players, which has led the media to conclude that Newton "cares more about fashion than football." Additionally, following a devastating loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, Newton notably walked out of his post game interview abruptly, drawing much criticism from both fans and media alike. He was quickly labeled a sore loser, as well as a player who couldn’t deal with pressure or adversity.
In 2017, Newton faced another controversy after dismissing a female reporter's question, stating that it was "funny to hear a female ask about football." This exchange lost him a prominent endorsement deal with Dannon Yogurt (who quickly replaced Newton with Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott). Following the backlash over his comments, Newton issued an apology for his "extremely unacceptable" remarks, vowing to learn from the incident and become a more well-rounded individual.
While Newton went through his ups and downs with the Carolina media, press in the Boston market is a completely different animal entirely. Boston media members and beat writers have a history of asking athletes questions that they know will make them uncomfortable and possibly push them to their limits. This isn't limited to just the Patriots, either; this behavior has been omnipresent in the coverage of all four of the region's major sports franchises.
During Bill Belichick's tenture, New England has chosen to roll the dice on high risk players such as Aaron Hernandez, Antonio Brown, Corey Dillon and several others. These players were all branded as men who had "character issues," players who were given a second chance and an opportunity to adhere to the "Patriot Way." Almost all of these players were portrayed in a negative light by the media. And, while some of these higher risk signings and draft picks haven’t worked out, Randy Moss stands out from the rest of the group as someone who arrived following some turbulent times in Minnesota and Oakland and wound up making the most of that second chance. He's proof that these gambles can pay off.
It will be quite interesting to see how the media chooses to portray Cam Newton when he reports to training camp, as the first few days of press coverage following the news has been mixed at best. Conversely, it will also bear watching to see exactly how Newton navigates the requests of the rabid Boston media. As fans, we've seen players sign with a team in this market before and heard after the fact just how negative said player's experience was with the media, along with how disillusioned they were with how exactly they were portrayed.
Which Cam Newton can the Patriots expect?
While it would be amazing to see Cam Newton completely return to form and look like the player he was during his 2015 MVP season, this is highly unlikely to occur. Newton's body has been through hell, especially over the past three years. If he survives initial and final cuts and winds up becoming the Patriots' starting Quarterback, expect to see a "new" Cam Newton.
The offense that the Patriots have run with Tom Brady has evolved some as time over the past two decades, but for the most part, it's been largely the same. Moreover, the offense that they run isn’t a spread offense like the one that Newton has played in ever since his days at Auburn. As such, both he and the team will have to adapt and create a whole new system. While he will still showcase his mobility from time to time, Newton likely won’t be running as much as he did in years past, helping him avoid further injury. Additionally, the fact remains that the Patriots' system has never featured a Quarterback of Cam Newton's caliber before.
What I likely see happening is the Patriots tweaking their system to better suit Cam Newton, while also keeping the main core of their offense the same. The concepts that the offense has relied heavily on over the years, including zone running, screen plays and slant routes, are sure to remain firmly ingrained. Additionally, Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels is constantly running plays that are a bit out of character for his offense, in an effort to keep opponents on their toes; Newton's presence can definitely assist him in that sense as well.
McDaniels could design and implement more RPO plays this season than in years past, which would be beneficial for both Newton and for third year Running Back Sony Michel. About five weeks ago, I wrote about Sony Michel and how the 2020 season is truly a make or break year for him. So, with a refreshed and healthy offensive line and the Patriots likely looking for Michel to carry more of the load in their offense than before, the addition of Newton could be huge for him. However, Michel is a possibility to be placed on the PUP list after off-season foot surgery, so if he does miss time to start the season, it's possible that we could see Newton scramble more often in an effort to keep the chains moving.
After two recent surgeries on his throwing shoulder, Newton should shy away from throwing the ball 50+ yards down the field on a constant basis, which is why playing in the Patriots' offense could serve him well. The Patriots' passing offense consists of and relies on screen routes, slants and receivers creating separation through both in and out routes. These higher percentage throws could be just what Newton needs to be successful, as his ability to consistently throw the football downfield may not be the same as it once was.
The Patriots' signing of Cam Newton reminds me of when the Patriots brought in Tim Tebow back in 2013. Like Newton, Tebow was looking to save his football career and to have the opportunity to learn from Bill Belichick. Perhaps the Patriots know that they're going to start Jarrett Stidham regardless of the outcome and are just trying to help Newton get another opportunity down the line. A big difference this time around, though? There's no Tom Brady attached to the starting QB job like when Tebow came around. This time, the Quarterback position should be very much up for grabs.
At the end of the day when you take all factors into consideration, Newton probably won’t be here any longer than one year. In fact, I could very well see him being cut before the regular season, especially if the Patriots are confident in Jarrett Stidham's ability to take over the reigns at the Quarterback position. Conversely, I would not be surprised if Newton wins the starting job outright and winds up having a solid season.
This signing should be a win-win for both sides; if Newton plays an entire season healthy, wins the division and possibly even a playoff game, he'll be a candidate for a major pay day. Depending on his asking price and market value, the Patriots will likely choose to not overspend on Newton and will gladly take the compensatory 2022 3rd round pick if he leaves as a free agent. Conveniently enough, this would help make up for the 2021 3rd round pick that the team lost as a result of its videotaping violation last December.
When Newton’s contract expires at the end of the 2020 season, the Patriots will have between $90-100 million in cap space, which opens up options for the team in its efforts to continue its rebuild. While they could invest some of that capital in Cam Newton, they might also attempt to save that space to use in the event that another, younger star Quarterback were to become available. With Deshaun Watson set to become a free agent after the 2021 season, perhaps the Patriots attempt to trade for him before he becomes potentially too expensive for Houston to keep.
Bottom line: I’m still very excited that the Patriots signed Cam Newton and I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do for them at this stage of his career. However, Newton is here to be the short term solution at Quarterback, not the long term solution that many are hoping for. Personally, I’m more excited to see how Jarrett Stidham responds to this news. If he really is in the team's future plans, this will only motivate him to continue to improve. I do genuinely hope that Cam Newton can bounce back and play great in 2020, but even if he does, I believe his time with the Patriots will only last one season.