The business of football rarely makes room for sympathy, and whatever there might be sure isn’t directed at New England, the winningest NFL town for two decades running.
But of all the different sights and all the different sounds that have continued to show us how far business is from usual with the 2020 Patriots, only a heart of stone would take Sunday’s final image of Cam Newton and not feel something for a quarterback who came here looking for redemption and so far has only found pain.
As the arm of Bills defensive tackle Justin Zimmer came at him from behind, separating the football from where it was nestled inside his right arm, there was Newton, falling backwards into a crouch, his butt destined to hit one part of the Buffalo turf, the ball destined to hit another. His arms flailed desperately to reclaim his treasure, to keep a dramatic fourth-quarter drive alive, destined as it seemed to tie the game (at least) or win the game (at best). But in the end, he grabbed only air, finding nothing left to hold onto.
And so goes the Patriots season, a 24-21 loss to the Bills dropping their record to 2-5, a fourth straight loss overall and third in the final seconds leaving everyone in New England wondering what, if anything, is left to hold onto this season. Newton’s fumble with 31 seconds left in the game is the only play that will be remembered, deservedly so for the way it handed Buffalo the win. It left Newton with nothing to do but trudge to the sideline for a seat on the bench, his thousand-yard stare and watery eyes revealing an anguish so deep it radiated straight through our television screens.
In the words of coach Bill Belichick, asked what he was thinking in that moment: “How do you think we felt?”
Everyone was stunned. Newton was crushed. Surrounded by teammates, in a world of his own, he sat alone as the final seconds ticked away. James White walked by, stopped, and leaned in to talk, presumably offering words of support. Newton barely heard him.
“Honestly I can’t even really remember,” Newton said. “It’s unacceptable on my part. I know that’s just been a broken record here of late. But nobody feels sorry for me and I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I just have to be better, and just play 60 minutes of premium football.”
He didn’t always get the chance Sunday, not with an offensive game plan at rainy and windy Bills Stadium clearly designed to avoid big mistakes. Running the ball on third and long, kicking a field goal on third down, trying a surprise onside kick to squeeze an extra possession out of the game, all of it said plenty about where the Pats believe they are on offense. But the ongoing emergence of Damien Harris (a second career 100-yard rushing game with a first career rushing TD) and Jakobi Meyers (team-high six catches for 58 yards in the absence of N’Keal Harry and Julian Edelman) along with a resurgent Newton (54 rushing yards with a touchdown) worked to keep the Pats in the game.
And in the fourth quarter, they looked to win it. They got the ball with 4:03 remaining, at their own 21-yard line and trailing by 3. Eleven plays later, they were at the Bills' 19 and eyeing the end zone. Shotgun snap, and off Cam went, behind left tackle and toward the sideline.
“Everything was rolling, as we would have expected it to do. We were wasting time, being efficient, moving the ball,” Newton said.
But Zimmer poked, the ball popped, and the game was over.
“It’s unacceptable,” Newton said. “I got to protect the ball better. It affects me more that I am still jeopardizing this team’s success because of my lackluster performance of protecting the football. Coach trusts me with the ball in my hands, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I got to do a better job protecting it.”
Maybe, with a run toward the left sideline, he should have been holding the ball in his left hand. But as a dominant righthander who has always felt stronger on that side, he did what came naturally. And his openness in owning up to all of it continues to paint him as a stand-up figure in the crucible of this post-Tom Brady, Boston-is-a-titletown life. But with every confession of guilt, with every description of disappointment, it’s hard not to feel for what he is going through. The heightened drama of his late-summer signing and the early success in his first two starts feels so long ago now. Instead, it’s the final inability to convert a 2-point conversion Week 2 in Seattle that hindsight paints as a warning.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Newton said of the entire season. “This league is not about what have you done before but what have you done for me lately. This is a production-based league. Coach preaches each and every day to protect the football, to play smart football. That’s what makes it so frustrating. You’re trying so hard, but at the end of the day, you don’t get the result. Then what do you do?”
Time will tell, as Belichick made it clear this is Newton’s job to fix. “Cam is our quarterback,” he said. “That’s the way it’s been all year.”
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.