When Coronavirus shut the world down, it also shut down the NFL rumor mill a bit. Free agency was all but over, already. The quarterback carousel had spun and there were some winners (Jameis Winston getting to chase a ring in New Orleans) and some losers (the Bears thinking Nick Foles is anything but an older, less mobile Mitch Trubisky). Everyone had pretty well set themselves and were preparing for the relative quiet before the storm of the NFL Draft, mini camps, training camps, and the NFL season.
Only one team didn’t make a move. The New England Patriots. That changed on Sunday when they went out and signed former NFL MVP and guy who would have been taken out back of Santa Anita Race Track and shot because he broke his leg Cam Newton.
Newton was released by the Carolina Panthers as they rebuild under new coach and 2018 Texas Bowl winner Matt Ruhle, who opted to go with less talented but miraculously healthier Teddy Bridgewater. In doing so, the Panthers let go of the man who led them to a Super Bowl and holds every passing record.
800 miles in a massage parlor hand job filled private jet away, the New England Patriots were also saying goodbye to the best quarterback they’ve ever known. Tom Brady, the Super Bowl winning, night shade vegetable hating fancy boy (hey, thats us!) said goodbye to the team he had led for the past two decades, and like most aging people, he went to Florida. Patriots coach Bill Belichick led us to believe that he was going into the season with noted pile of ass Brian Hoyer, and unproven but definitely not very good Jarrett Stidham as his quarterbacks.
Rumors had swirled from the moment Newton was released that his natural landing spot would be New England. It made a lot of sense. Belichick has been known as a quarterback whisperer. It’s not THAT long ago that he made Matt Cassell look competent. Newton probably needed a change of scenery to prove he could stay healthy after injuries had marred the previous few seasons. New England needed an option at quarterback that gave fans more hope than the Dollar General quarterbacks they had in hand.
In fact, you can go back as far as February and find stories linking the Patriots and Newton together. It all felt inevitable before the whole world came to a screeching halt. Yet, you still have simple minded slap dicks on social media shocked by the entire concept of Cam Newton doing exactly what everyone knew would happen five months ago. These same simple minded slap dicks are also the ones blindly calling this a good deal because they had Cam Newton on their fantasy team once a few years ago, and that makes him still good. If you people who are reading this in the Chicago area want to look at your facebook feed and look at the people excited for this move, and the people excited for the Nick Foles signing, and create a Venn Diagram of it, you will get a near perfect circle.
While it is absolutely possible that Bill Belichick can rebuild Newton’s career, and for what it’s worth, Newton is betting on that exact thing with his contract being very incentive laden, there is a lot of evidence that says that Cam Newton isn’t the quarterback he once was, and his MVP season might have been more of an aberration than an indicator.
In 2015, the Panthers were lead by a great defense. How good was the defense? They gave up the second fewest yards per play, only trailing their eventually Super Bowl opponents, the Denver Broncos. They far and away led the league in takeaways, with 39. While they were 11th in yards given up through the air, they made up for it by having more interceptions than touchdowns given up on the season. They were fourth in the league against the run that season, and committed the sixth fewest penalties. The biggest indicator of their success was that opposing teams scored on the lowest percentage of offensive possessions in the NFL, a stat that shows a team’s ability to shut teams down in their own half ot he field.
That great defense led the team to go 15-1 on the season. The issue is, you can’t give an entire defense the MVP award. In fact, voters have made fairly clear that you don’t give defensive players the MVP award. For you non-Football history majors out there, the last defensive player to win MVP was Lawrence Taylor in 1986. More commonly, the award goes to a quarterback on a stand out team on the season. Twelve of the past 13 players to win MVP were quarterbacks. In 2015, arguably the two best players in the NFL were defensive players in JJ Watt and Aaron Donald.
In fact, if you look closely at Cam Newton’s numbers, he was very likely the benefactor of playing on short fields thanks to his defense, and he didn’t even particularly excel. A look at the league leaderboard revals something interesting. I’m going to display two sets of stats for the quarterbacks leaderboard in 2015.
20th in passes completed
18th in passed completed
27th in completion percentage
13th in completion percentage
16th in passing yards
19th in passing yards
5th in touchdowns
19th in touchdowns
13th in Interception Percentage
20th in Interception Percentage
23rd in Passing Yards per game
22nd in Passing Yards per game
The first one is Cam Newton. In bold? Jay Cutler, in his last full season with the 6-10 Bears before getting run out of town.
One thing that Bill Belichick has never really done is work with and succeed with mobile quarterbacks. On the upside, Newton is not a mobile quarterback at this stage in his career. On the downside, what made Newton great was his ability to keep plays alive with his feet. He averaged at least 4.8 yards per rush for most of his career, and his ability to keep plays alive and let his wide receivers get open allowed him to operate without great wide receivers.
In that 2015 season, the leading receiver was Greg Olson. The second leading receiver on the team? Ted Ginn Jr. with 44 receptions. As an aside, he had 44 receptions on 97 targets! He caught the ball on less than half of the passes that were thrown to him that season. That’s….not great. The only other times in his career it was that low was when he had noted legends Chad Pennington and Cleo Lemon throwing to him in Miami.
Tom Brady might be slower than me. That’s not a big exaggeration, either. It also didn’t matter because Brady knew exactly where his wide receivers were going and could minimize the risk of throwing an interception by throwing into lanes that were developed to be there by Belichick’s, and in turn Josh McDaniel’s offensive schemes. The offense works based on precision and quick decision making. The plays fall apart too quickly if the quarterback holds onto the ball too long. In that offense, the quarterback needs to be accurate.
In 2018, Newton completed 67 percent of his passes, which looks like a mirage compared to the rest of his career. He played most of 2018 with injuries that forced him to become a check down quarterback. In fact, 33 percent of his completed passes went to Christian McCaffrey. While his numbers were good that season when he needed to adapt because his body was letting him down, McCaffrey is one of the four or five best players in the NFL, who spent most of the past two seasons looking like he was playing Madden on easy mode. There is nobody like that on the Patriots.
While the Patriots have a “squint and maybe they are kinda similar” player in James White, the team fell apart last year because Tom Brady had one of the lowest completion percentages of his career, which would have still ranked as one of Cam Newton’s top four seasons. Beyond that, Newton will be dependent on Julian Edelman to continue to produce, and hope for some ascension from one of the Patriots 2019 rookie receivers in N’Keal Harry or Jakobi Meyers.
While it’s not a huge stretch that the Patriots might be able to rebuild their offense on the fly to suit Cam’s strengths, there are going to be some major hurdles in the way, and while it definitely improves the team, there still doesn’t appear to be a clear path for this team to return to the Super Bowl with Newton as quarterback, or even necessarily be the favorites to win the AFC East over a Buffalo Bills team that are acting as if their time is now to take over control of the divison.