Monday morning brought the most satisfaction after a Patriots loss that I can remember since … oh, I don’t even know. Do you? Got a suggestion or a recollection?
It’s been so long since any loss was acceptable around here, so long since we last remembered that great promise can be found even in defeat.
We might have to go all the way back to the 2001 season, when a certain skinny second-year quarterback couldn’t quite lead the Patriots to an upset of the mighty greatest-show-on-turf Rams in Week 10.
You know how that particularly movie ended a couple of months later. The regular-season loss turned out to foreshadow a greater, almost unimaginable victory.
Yes, Cam Newton and the Patriots came up one play and roughly 1 yard short in Sunday night’s 35-30 loss to Russell Wilson, gum-chompin' Pete Carroll, and the Seattle Seahawks.
With a more creative play call, or better execution of the you-know-what’s-coming, let’s-see-you-try-to-stop-it Newton run, Patriots fans would be celebrating a thrilling comeback win against an excellent team.
So the Patriots didn’t take away the win. There’s still something to celebrate, and much more to anticipate, because they took away a lesson that might be even more valuable.
The loss wasn’t a letdown in expectations, which is what pretty much any loss in Brady’s heyday felt like. It was a confirmation that we should have high expectations this season, because the new quarterback is fully capable of meeting them.
Newton’s brilliance (30 of 44, 397 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 2 rushing touchdowns) should not have been a revelation to Patriots fans. You saw it before, when his Panthers beat the Patriots in 2013 and again in 2017, with him throwing for a total of 525 yards and running for 106 more in the Panthers' wins. The question coming into this season was whether we would see it again now that he’s on this side. Let’s just say he’s still wearing that proverbial Superman cape, even if he apparently keeps it discreetly tucked beneath his shoulder pads.
Such excitement is unfair, you know. Or at least that’s what is being heard in the bitterness-tinged cacophony of voices in other NFL cities wondering loudly today how in the world Panthers legend-turned-discard Newton was allowed to get to New England, let alone on a deal that pays him less than Nathan Peterman is making this season.
Patriots fans get 20 years of Tom Brady (not to mention some preceding if more fleeting good times from Drew Bledsoe), and once he finally moved on, Bill Belichick follows up by bringing in a rejuvenated, motivated Newton, who is Brady opposite stylistically, at the very least his equal in terms of charisma, and based on the first two games of this season, healthy and in full command of his vast powers.
There will be some suggestion that the Patriots got lucky that Newton remained on the free agent market so long. The Panthers cut him March 24, and the Patriots didn’t formally announce his signing (to a one-year, $1 million deal with incentives) until July 8. There’s some truth there; every other NFL team had more than three months to sign him, and the Patriots were fortunate that no one did.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Panthers were vague about why they cut the franchise icon, the first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the team’s all-time passing leader, and the 2015 NFL MVP.
“I think, in fairness, I’m not getting into the details of our decision-making process,” general manager Marty Hurney said at the time.
The Panthers did have an agreement in place with Teddy Bridgewater on a three-year, $63 million deal when they cut Newton, who would have been a $21.1 million hit against the salary cap. But it was telling — and did Newton no favors — that the Panthers preferred a capable but injury-plagued option like Bridgewater over a franchise legend.
Newton has endured significant injuries the last two seasons, a shoulder injury in 2018 and a foot injury that limited him to two games last season. The question of whether wear and tear had eroded his talent followed him into free agency, and because of the pandemic, he couldn’t work out for teams that wanted to test the condition of his foot in particular.
Teams still could have signed him, of course, but the reasons not to — he’d cast too large of a shadow as a backup, he probably wants too much money, how much does he really have left anyway? — led to him still being available when the Patriots, who had no salary cap room before players began opting out of the season in June, suddenly had space to take a flier.
Make no mistake, the Patriots benefited from being the Patriots in this, too. It’s hard to imagine Newton would have considered a similar make-good bargain deal with, say, the Lions. The Patriots' pedigree and the chance to play for Belichick appealed to him.
You also wonder whether he was aware of the Patriots' interest well before they signed him; his deal was coincidentally (cough, cough; wear a mask) announced the same day as the penalties for the videotaping brouhaha in the press box at a Browns-Bengals game. The Newton signing buried that story.
I’m on record, multiple times, as being bummed out that Brady is ending his career elsewhere. Let me also go on record right now as believing the Patriots upgraded at quarterback this year. Brady looks the same in Tampa Bay — with better weapons, as they like to say — as he did in New England last year. He’s the greatest player of all time, but his style of play right now is methodically joyless. Where did that goofy, happy kid obliviously whacking Bledsoe on the helmet for the first Super Bowl go?
Newton is more fun. He’s more patient with the young receivers, especially with the enigmatic “Doughboy," N’Keal Harry. He has built a rapport with Julian Edelman, who was forever the sidecar to Brady’s motorcycle. He’s fearless on the run in that Young Grogan way, and there’s still lightning in his arm.
He’s more accurate than his reputation suggests; Belichick said he’s put in a lot of work on his throwing mechanics. His teammates revere him, but he doesn’t act above them, making sure touchdown celebrations are ensemble performances.
It won’t be perfect, because what is in this brutal league? I wonder what his worst games will look like, when the running lanes are clogged and the arm seems in need of recalibration, and I worry he’s taking too many hits, because he has always taken too many hits. I wonder if there will be moments of petulance born from on-field frustration, which happened from time to time in Carolina.
I suppose we’ll find out. But all I know for sure today is that the Patriots lost Sunday night, and the morning-after mood is like it was a blowout win.
Makes sense, too. Cam Newton is here, rolling and rejuvenated, doing all of his electrifying Cam Newton things, and life after the greatest quarterback of them all feels better than it did during the last year he was here.