Cam Newton has been in Foxborough for barely a month, but he has been trained well. Asked last week what the Patriots offense is going to look like, he kept it tight to the vest.
“Stay tuned,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think it’s in my best or the team’s best interest to just start reeling off all the things that we’re going to do or what I’m most excited about.”
The offense actually looks quite similar to last year’s, which struggled by Patriot standards and finished 15th in the NFL. The wide receiver position is basically the same — that is, too shallow and too reliant on Julian Edelman. The tight end position is still completely unproven. The four running backs are the same, and four of the five offensive linemen are back (counting David Andrews).
But the switch from Tom Brady to Newton at quarterback is a major wild card. For 20 years, the Patriots have been led by a classic straight-back, pocket passer. Opposing defenses never had to worry about Brady taking off with his feet.
With Newton, the Patriots get a much less polished and precise passer, but a more dynamic athlete. Newton has had more than 100 rushing attempts in seven of his eight healthy seasons, and he has 58 rushing touchdowns, most in NFL history by a quarterback.
The Patriots can call designed runs for Newton — read-options or even just straight power runs. His running ability can be especially effective in the red zone, and also on third downs.
NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth believes it’s not a coincidence that Belichick wanted an athletic quarterback taking over his offense post-Brady.
“I think somewhere in the back of every defensive coordinator’s mind is this little thing that says, if anyone really knows how to run the option right, there’s no way to stop it,” Collinsworth said.
“You have the quarterback now as a run threat, so you’ve added a blocker to the mix, and it can create some real issues. It never surprises me when defensive-minded head coaches, when they get a chance to pick a scheme or style, they like that running quarterback option style of play.”
Of course, don’t expect the Patriots to use Newton the way the Ravens do Lamar Jackson. At 31, and coming off consecutive seasons with shoulder and foot injuries, Newton needs to be managed a bit. The Patriots don’t want to use him recklessly.
But Newton’s ability to convert third downs with his feet and serve as his own running back in the red zone should help mask some of the Patriots’ deficiencies on offense.
Newton’s running ability “takes away or minimizes their greatest weakness, and their weakness is 100 percent their skill players on the outside,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “And it accentuates or maximizes their strengths, which is the offensive line and run game.”
The Patriots likely will adopt more of a balanced run/pass approach instead of having Newton sling the ball 40 times a game. Newton completed more than 60 percent of his passes in just three of his eight healthy seasons, though one was 2018. He is much improved as a pocket passer, but he’s not on Brady’s level.
“He’s still going to have a couple of throws where you’ll look up and be like, ‘Where was that?’ ” said former NFL safety Roman Harper, Newton’s teammate for two years in Carolina. “It’s always going to be a little high because he’s 6-6 and throws high. But other than that, he’s going to be right on target. He’s got a big-time arm.”
Carolina, led by running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, finished in the top 10 in overall rush percentage in each of Newton’s first seven seasons. In their best year, 2015 — when they went 15-1, reached the Super Bowl, and Newton won the MVP — their rush percentage was No. 2 in the NFL (49.6 percent of all plays).
There’s a chicken-and-egg argument in there — did the Panthers win because they ran the ball, or did they run the ball because they were winning? — but the Patriots certainly will lean on their run game this year.
The strength of their offense is at running back, where they return Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, and Damien Harris, and at offensive line, where Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, Andrews, and Shaq Mason have at times been a dominant front.
And considering how the Patriots don’t have many receivers and tight ends who can consistently win one-on-one matchups, they may have to resort to a lot of play-action to create separation.
“I think they’re going to try to get chunks in their play-action game, because they know they’re going to need it,” Orlovsky said. “It’s not going to be Tom Brady going 9 for 9 on a drive. They’re going to try to push the ball downfield using that run action.”
Schematically, the offense may not look very different pre-snap. Newton is used to playing with a fullback and multiple tight ends from his time in Carolina. Josh McDaniels has always used a bevy of shifts and motions to sniff out a defense and create space for his receivers, and that’s not going to change. Brady was always at his best when he got the ball out of his hands quickly, and Newton is going to attempt the same.
“They’re going to try to get the ball out of Cam’s hands as fast as possible, and then use run-game options for big chunks,” Orlovsky said. “They’re going to be the best at confusion on offense. They’re going to confuse people with so much motions and shifts.”
Most of the faces on the offense are the same, and McDaniels isn’t going to completely overhaul his playbook overnight. But Newton’s athleticism is a whole new weapon for the Patriots.
“Cam Newton and Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels together, it just makes for a really interesting dynamic,” Collinsworth said. “In many ways, I think the Patriots are going to be the most interesting team to watch for the first few weeks.”