The Patriots season opener is just days away. Are you ready for kickoff?
The Globe hosted a subscriber-only webinar with the 2020 Patriots coverage team, moderated by deputy sports editor Scott Thurston, to preview the season and give a glimpse at what our experts think might happen.
National NFL writer Ben Volin, Patriots writer Jim McBride, and columnist Tara Sullivan gathered on Zoom Tuesday to talk out the season. Here are excerpts from their conversation:
Health and safety
How will the NFL keep its players safe from COVID-19 and conduct a season? Will the league be able to avoid postponements, or will it end up more like MLB — players flouting protocols and lots of shifted schedules?
Tara Sullivan: I think the issue we saw with player behavior in Major League Baseball was a helpful thing, instructionally, for players in the NFL. I think they saw what could happen, right? They saw when some baseball players weren’t as responsible and taking it as seriously about how transmissible the virus is, and so I think in some ways that served as a good object lesson for players in the NFL.
Ben Volin: To build off of that, actually, the NFL was smart; they included a punishment element, and the NFLPA agreed to it, because the NFLPA wants to get through the season too. If players recklessly break the rules in the social distancing, and get COVID, and a team can prove it, they can go after a player’s money and suspend them for conduct detrimental.
You know, especially when what happens when they’re 2-10 and the season’s over with? Everyone still wants to make their money, so it was smart to do that.
But I think also in training camp the players have been too busy to go out and do anything. Now that the regular season’s here, they will be a little more out in the real world, so I do think cases of COVID will pop up, but it’s been remarkable how no team … really, there’s currently like four players out of 2,600 [who are affected].
Sullivan: Jim, you’re watching practice, you watch the NFL every day; if somebody gets it, it’s going to spread because this is the most contact of all contact sports, right?
Jim McBride: Even at practice, there’s a ton of contact. Even when it’s not full-on contact, some of those one-on-one drills, you’re right in a guy’s face, there’s a chance for it.
Speaking to Ben’s point about the players, you talk to a lot of the Patriots about it this year and they all talked about how they’re not only counting on each other in the locker room, but they’re counting on every player in the league to do the right thing because they all want to play.
So it’s not just like you’re counting on those 80 guys that you’re practicing with every day; there’s 32 teams out there and they want everyone to be in lockstep with that message.
Volin: We put a lot on the players … It’s the coaches, it’s the kitchen staff, it’s the training staff, too. Obviously everyone has to be on board.
I’m confident they’re going to play a Super Bowl this year in Tampa. They’re going to get the season in. I’m not entirely sure it’s going to be 16 games, and it might look a little strange.
There’s a little bit of buzz right now about going to a bubble format for the playoffs, which I think would be pretty intriguing. They are going to play, they’re going to get the Super Bowl in, they’re going to finish the season. That is my big hot take for the night.
Scott Thurston: It really is remarkable: They test over 2,600 players over that one-week period and there was one player that tested positive. For not being in a bubble?
Volin: Yeah, absolutely, they’re living at home with wives and kids and all that, they’re in society right now and no one’s getting it. So they’re doing the physical and social distancing, the testing and quarantining is working, and the players are being smart about their decision right now. So they’re doing a great job.
Acquiring Cam Newton
What was your initial reaction to hearing Cam Newton was joining the Patriots?
TS: Where were we, Scott? We were all at home, stuck in quarantine! Honestly, my reaction was, ‘Yeah, they finally did it.’ I really … Ben and Jim were on that from the start, it always made the most sense.
It just seemed like the experiment that needed to happen … And quite honestly, a little more exciting – I mean, nothing against Jarrett Stidham, but that doesn’t bring quite the same level of intrigue or interest or starpower, whatever way ways you want to say it. Cam Newton does and I’m fascinated, I can’t wait, it’s one of the best storylines, I think, in the NFL this year.
BV: I appreciate Tara giving me credit but it’s not deserved, I absolutely 100 percent did not think they would bite on this move.
I mean obviously it was something we talked about for a lot of offseason – that Cam Newton is out there and that the Patriots don’t seem to have a quarterback. I didn’t think it’d be a scheme fit. I look at Cam Newton’s career completion percentage – one season over 60% – and I looked at his injury history, and I just didn’t think it’d be a great fit. Where I was wrong was what I forgot once again, is that Belichick doesn’t necessarily care about that stuff. All he cares about is value and he got Cam Newton on a minimum-salary contract, a one-year prove-it deal. He got a hungry, motivated player and, if he’s healthy, Cam Newton has the potential to be a top-10 type of quarterback.
It’s going to be very exciting to see how they adapt the offense to his skills, what Josh McDaniels can come up with. I think they’re going to be relying a lot on running the football this year with their stable of four running backs, which looks like the strength of the offense right now. And then Cam himself, with power runs, read-options, down scrambles inside the red zone. It’s going to be very fascinating to go from a classic drop-back passer like Tom Brady to one of the greatest rushing quarterbacks in NFL history in Cam Newton.
The biggest question is: is he healthy? I think time has been on his side in this. I think he’s had enough time to heal his foot, enough time to heal his shoulder. The issue is can he stay healthy for 16 games and can he take the hits. That’s something he’ll have to prove, none of us can know. I think he’s hungry and motivated, and I’m really excited to see what these guys can do.
What about Newton’s injury history?
JM: His arm strength continually built during camp this year, even the layman can tell from his first camp practice to the last one. He wasn’t throwing bullets (at the beginning) and then, by the end of camp he was throwing lasers. I think the concerns about the shoulder aren’t there as much and I think that, even going back to last year, the shoulder was really near 100%, but then he hurt his foot against the Patriots in a preseason game, that Lisfranc injury and then he tried to overcompensate and that alters your your throwing motion.
In looking at him on the field and talking to some doctors that have all watched his film and seen workout videos, they think he looks healthy. You know, I’m not a doctor, I’m done playing one tonight on this webinar, but he looks healthy, he claims to be healthy. I don’t think you’ll see any limitations. I don’t think they’re going to go into the season saying ‘We can only run him five times’ or ‘we can only let him throw 20 times a game.’
If they didn’t have the confidence that he was completely healthy and could run the gamut in that playbook, I don’t think he’d be out there. I think that’s a good sign for Patriots fans and for Cam himself.
Will Newton get the calls other QBs get?
TS: He’s a guy that went more than the equivalent of a full season without getting a roughing-the-passer call. Because of his unique skill-set, I think he’s probably the best dual-threat QB, and I grew up watching and usually think of someone like Randall Cunningham in that way. He’s so impressive in both facets of the game, but he doesn’t get the calls because even when he’s dropping back, sometimes he still looks like a runner.
It’ll be interesting, I’m fascinated by that aspect. Will he get the calls, or how will the protections go, how will he be treated by officials. I think that’s going to be part of it for New England this year.
JM: Those defensive ends that were crashing into Cam were smaller than him! And that creates a weird dynamic for the referees.
TS: I like the way Cam put it in his complaint about it. He said (paraphrasing), “Once I’m a runner, I’m fair game, I get that. It’s more when I’m in the pocket that I should be protected, just like the way Tom Brady was.”
ST: You don’t realize how big this guy is, too.
JM: It’s funny, the first practice, when he walked on the field, they were just in their shells and sweatpants and he looked like he was in full pads. He’s just gigantic, walking next to some of those other guys. The Patriots have a running back on the roster this year who is 5-5. When he stood next to Cam, it was like ‘bring your son to work’ day.
What’s the future with Cam and the Patriots? Is Belichick looking beyond this season?
JM: I think if he excels they would be open to extending him in the middle of the season. Wether Cam would be interested or not depends. Maybe Cam wants another big payday. But I don’t think they’re walking into this saying we’re only having him for one year, let’s make this work, and we’ll move on next year. If it’s working really well they are going to want to keep this guy.
BV: Agreed, except, if it works really well, Newton’s going to be looking at a payday. Like, Ryan Tannehill just got 3 years and $91 million guaranteed. That’s the best-case scenario for Newton. But If you’re the Patriots, you go 11-5 and make the second round of the playoffs, you’er going to want to keep him. But he knows he’s out there for his next big contract, and if he wants to be a franchise quarterback, that’s going to be tricky. They do have exclusive negotiating rights with Newton until next March, and they can franchise tag him, so they have control. But I do wonder if all the positive things that Belichick been saying about him, it may be softening up Cam a little and trying to get Cam to really, really love the Patriot Way and approach him with a lesser contract offer, and Cam may think, ‘You know what, I love it here, let’s do it, let’s sign up for three more years.’
What opt-outs and personnel losses mean
Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung opted out from the defense. What do those losses mean to the team?
JM: No question Hightower and Chung are big losses because the Patriots had already suffered huge, huge losses. With Kyle Van Noy going to Miami, Elandon Roberts going to Miami, Jamie Collins going to Detroit. They were thin at linebacker, and it’s a big deal.
Jajuan Bentley is now the elder statesman as the linebacker, he’s going to be the guy that wears the green dot. It’s a lot of responsibility for a guy who didn’t play a lot of snaps last year even though he was healthy, and I think he was valued but they had a lot of depth in front of him that kept him on the bench. Now he’s grown into a larger role. He’s had a really good camp and was just named the captain. Even though he is young, a lot of people look up to him.
But Chung leaving … I always say this, how underrated I always thought he was, even when people were singing his praises, I never thought they realize just how valuable he was on this defense and how many different things he was asked to do and asked to do well.
Kyle Dugger is an exciting rookie and I think he’s going to end up taking a lot of Chung’s snaps because he’s a kid that looks like he can play free and strong safety, tht kind of hybrid-linebacker spot. But they’re going to miss Chung. This was the best defense in the league last year, at least statistically, and they lost two guys that played a lot of snaps.
Hightower and Chung had a big presence as leaders in the locker room, too. On that topic: What will leadership look like this year? It must fall to players like Devin and Jason McCourty, and Matthew Slater.
TS: The heaps the praise that we’ve heard from Bill on Cam Newton ... the only one who comes close is Devin. Think of how Bill Belichick talks about Devin McCourty. I think we’ve all heard it, going back across Super Bowls. And the way he relies on Devin, not just for the what he does on the field, but what he does in terms of the example of leadership. Jason being elected as a captain this year speaks to the respect they have in the locker room, and this year, in particular, it starts in the locker room. What behaviors are we going to model, and how are we going to stay focused, and how are we going to maintain – you know what we sometimes jokingly call it the Patriot Way, but there is such a thing, right? It’s an attitude that’s handed from veterans to rookies. It’s not something that other teams aren’t trying to do, but it’s just taken such a hold in New England, and it’s been supported by the results so you’re more willing to follow it.
One last thing
Who has the better year: Brady or Cam?
BV: Brady. I think Brady is going to have a bounce-back season. I think he has 4,000 yards in him, I think 10-plus wins. I’m curious to see how it all meshes. Remember, last year it was difficult for him to work with all new receivers at times, and other than Gronk, it’s all new receivers. I think anyone can throw to Mike Evans. But for Chris Godwin – he put up a lot of numbers last year, but is Brady going to trust him? Same with OJ Howard. It looks great on paper, but is Brady going to make it all work together seamlessly?
JM: I’m going to take a contrarian point of view and say Newton has the better year because I think the Bucs' division, the NFC south, is monstrous. I think the Saints are really good. I think the Panthers are OK. I think the Falcons are really good and underrated so I think that Brady’s got a tougher schedule, division wise.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara. Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride. Scott Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.