Cam Newton was throwing the football right down to the final second Sunday, and his last-ditch, desperation heave was good for a game-high 50-yard completion to Ryan Izzo. The longest pass of the Patriots’ day was still short of the end zone though, and as the Texans brought Izzo to the ground and began celebrating their 27-20 victory, the two-week era of good feeling in New England danced into the Houston sunset with them.
Newton certainly went down fighting, nearly bringing the Patriots all the way back on his previous drive, until yet another untouched blitzing Texan forced him into a flailing fourth-and-4 failure that turned over the ball at the Houston 24-yard line. Yet even as Newton kept passing the ball, this was a day that felt more like a passing of the torch.
That’s how it goes when the student outplays the teacher.
That’s how it feels when the next-generation Cam does everything just a little bit better than the original model (who just happens to be standing on the other side of the field), when the set of 25-year-old legs wearing a Texans uniform move so much more freely than the 31-year-old one playing for New England and the toll of those extra six years of NFL life come through in living color.
Of course NFL games are not waged between opposing quarterbacks, and Deshaun Watson didn’t win some glorified game of one-on-one over Newton Sunday. It was the Patriots’ defense he victimized over and over again, 344 yards passing and a team-high 36 more rushing, the worst (best?) of which was the 4-yard, second-quarter touchdown run that saw him bust through both a linebacker and safety on his way to the end zone. It was a vintage Cam Newton effort, a beautiful homage to the quarterback who might just go down as the best run-pass option guy of all time.
Watson was the best player on the field Sunday, calm and accurate from the pocket, dangerous as always on the move, the leader in a way Newton hoped to be in joining the Patriots as a free agent this past offseason, the way he once was in winning league MVP honors and taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl five years ago.
No, they didn’t play each other, but knowing the history between the two, hearing the compliments and memories about each other they shared all week, it’s impossible to ignore what this game represented in the ongoing lineage of NFL quarterbacks. And here’s the thing: whether Newton ever wins another NFL game, the impact, influence, and inspiration he has provided to the next generation of quarterbacks, particularly Black ones like himself, guarantees a victorious legacy.
Newton wasn’t quite ready to go there Sunday, not as the sting of his team’s sixth loss against four wins still vibrated, not as he insisted the only thing he was focused on was learning from the film of this game and getting ready to execute more efficiently next week against Arizona. But think of it — last week he played (and beat) Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. This week it was Watson. And next week it’ll be Kyler Murray. All of them growing up as devoted Newton fans, young players who saw themselves in the Auburn-turned-Carolina star, some even lucky enough to attend the seven-on-seven camps sponsored by his charitable foundation.
Those were the stories Watson was telling during the week, how Newton didn’t just invite him to play, but brought him in as a friend, guiding him toward this NFL life, answering questions late into the night, providing a backstop unlike anything he’d had himself growing up.
As Watson put it: “Cam is a big brother to me. A mentor. I wouldn’t even say mentor. Just brother. Just life experiences, life advice, football advice. He’s just always been there for me since I was in high school. We’ve always supported each other. He’s a guy that I based my game, especially at a young age, around what he did. So I mean, he’s just always been my favorite quarterback. "
Or as Newton recalled, “Yeah, that’s my guy. I just love the player, the person that he’s grown to be; he’s growing to be. His stock is still ascending. Deshaun was on the foundation team, and we knew then he was a star. How easy the ball came off his hands, how he had so much arm talent at such a young age.
“It’s a person that I just sit back, man, and admire from afar knowing that I know where he came from. I know his circle pretty close. And he’s just a person that has a bright future in front of him. I look forward to Sunday’s matchup.”
That part certainly didn’t go the way Newton hoped, not as he was held to a measly 6 yards rushing, not as his 365 yards in the air might sound good except for the fact that his team couldn’t cash in nearly enough in the red zone. But someday, beyond the disappointment of a mid-November loss in the middle of a pandemic-altered 2020 season, Newton’s role in this game should be remembered differently. He made a difference, not just in a game, but in The Game.
“Why? It’s simple,” Newton said. “I am not going to sit up here and proclaim I am the most thuggish, ruggish quarterback in the NFL, but a lot of people where I’m from don’t have the opportunities that I have now. To use my platform, for me to use my reach from the people who spend advertising money on me and things like that, I want to always give back to the community.”
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