NFL scouts love comparisons.
In painting a picture of a prospect’s profile, these studious souls point out a player’s past performances on the field and his personality off it.
A typical quarterback’s description could go something like this:
“Strengths: Can see the entire field … Active feet allow him to buy time in the pocket … Can make quick reads … Teammates rave about him.
“Weaknesses: Below-average arm strength … Makes questionable decisions … Runs too upright … Will clash with coaches.
“NFL comparison: John Doe.‘'
When it came to Cam Newton, however, chroniclers were at a loss to fill out the bottom line. He was, in a word, incomparable.
Sure, they could list the pros (big-time arm, elite athleticism) and the cons (2008 arrest led to him leaving the University of Florida and playing at Auburn), but finding an accurate comparison in the professional game? That was a bit of a challenge.
They simply had never seen anything like him. There was no point of reference.
Newton was blessed with a unique blend of size, strength, and speed that would allow him to play a plethora of positions on either side of the ball.
He had the size (6 feet 5 inches, 248 pounds) and first step to play tight end or defensive end. He had the quickness, vision, and power to play running back or inside linebacker.
But quarterback was his position, and he played with exceptional power and production. Newton had the ability to make amazing plays with his arm and his legs. With apologies to Michael Vick, Newton has been the most complete and devastating dual-threat quarterback the NFL has ever seen.
He threw for 4,051 yards (still a career high) and 21 touchdowns and also rushed for 706 yards and 14 TDs en route to winning Rookie of the Year with the Carolina Panthers in 2011. He followed that up with 3,869 passing yards and 19 TDs plus 741 rushing yards and 8 TDs in 2012.
He won only 13 games those first two years but went 12-4 in his third season. After a step back in 2014 (5-8-1), it all came together in his MVP season of 2015 when he went 15-1 and led the Panthers to a Super Bowl berth.
Since then, Newton is 23-23 as a starter, as wear and tear and significant shoulder and foot injuries started to take a toll.
Newton last looked like himself in early 2018 when he led the Panthers to a 6-2 start running new coordinator Norv Turner’s offense. He hurt his shoulder against the Steelers in Week 9 and played through it, struggling through six straight losses before being put on the shelf.
A foot injury in the 2019 exhibition season (suffered against the Patriots) torpedoed what turned out to be his final year in Carolina, as he was shelved after Week 2.
Now for the question on everyone’s mind: Can the Patriots’ new quarterback ever reach elite NFL status again, or have his injuries left him past the point of no return?
Though it’s unlikely Newton will ever duplicate his 2015 season, a look at film of his abbreviated 2019 season reveals some encouraging indicators. It absolutely wasn’t a work of art, but it looked as though the Lisfranc injury in his foot was more of a hindrance than his shoulder was.
In the opener, Newton threw some short and intermediate darts against the Rams. Though his windup and follow-through appeared compact, it didn’t appear as though Newton had lost a ton of velocity off his fastball.
On his first possession, Newton feigned a shotgun handoff before double-pumping and hitting D.J. Moore for 16 yards. On a later first-quarter possession, Newton, again out of the shotgun, showed a quick release in hitting tight end Greg Olsen down the seam.
During a two-minute drill to end the first half, Newton showed flashes of his old self, going 4 for 4 (not counting a clock-stopping spike) for 42 yards to set up a field goal as time expired.
Newton’s best throw on the drive was an 11-yard back-shoulder frozen rope to Moore.
Newton finished the day hitting 25 of 38 passes for 239 yards (9.6 yards per completion) and showed he could thrive in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
In the second game of 2019, which came just four days later against Tampa Bay and turned out to be Newton’s final appearance as a Panther, he completed 25 of 51 passes for 333 yards.
Newton again showed polish, touch, and zip on short and medium passes, though he did flash back to his earlier days when he hit Curtis Samuel on a 44-yard go route. On the shotgun play, Newton deftly faked a handoff before launching a deep ball to Samuel, who had his man beat by a step. The ball was a bit underthrown, and Samuel may have had a touchdown had Newton hit him in stride.
It was the only obvious instance in the two games where there was a hint of declining arm strength.
What was more evident, however, was that Newton’s mechanics were clearly thrown off because of the foot injury. He wasn’t able to step into his throws with any authority on his lead (left) foot, forcing him to launch off his back foot, which often affects accuracy. That he could still fire the ball is testament to the strength he still possesses in his twice surgically repaired shoulder.
With nearly a year in the books rehabbing his foot injury, Newton could come to Foxborough as healthy as he’s been in two years; certainly his Instagram posts would indicate he is all systems go. If his footwork needs polishing, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be on it.
Newton still has the physical skills and football acumen to fit into nearly every scheme, and that should make for a nice give-and-take with McDaniels, who will formulate game plans to emphasize his new quarterback’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses.