Cam Newton is back. Cue the applause.
This is cause for celebration, not the angst that has enveloped the best and most logical quarterback decision the Patriots could have made for the upcoming season.
Not because there is no better alternative, not because the Patriots need a quarterback in place before they begin wooing free agents this week, not because a Jimmy Garoppolo trade is nowhere near imminent (never mind viable), and not because he is relatively cheap while returning on a one-year, incentive-laden deal. Though all of those bolster the logic of Friday’s decision to give Newton another shot in New England, there is a better, more football-centric reason.
He can still play.
There is every reason to believe Newton can be better than he was last season, when the mounting obstacles of a most unusual NFL season conspired to keep him from even approaching the ceiling of his potential.
You know the list.
No regular offseason to get to know coaches, teammates, and the playbook. A severely restricted training camp that barely allowed for meaningful practice. A roster devoid of commensurate talent at the offensive skill positions, particularly at wide receiver and tight end. And that was before the pandemic, which shredded the roster even more with eight opt-outs.
A practice and game schedule rocked by COVID, with the only certainty being uncertainty itself. A season-ending injury to the single most reliable pass-catching option Julian Edelman. And of course, the COVID diagnosis of Newton himself; he missed only one game but his play dropped off significantly after he got sick.
Resolve any one of those issues and Newton’s prospects would have improved dramatically. Resolve most of them, as the Patriots hope to do this season? Watch out.
The work has started already, with roster upgrades from last week’s trade acquisition of tackle Trent Brown to the reported free agent additions of tight end Jonnu Smith and nose tackle Davon Godchaux.
The most obvious was Newton’s physical condition. At 31, with a playing style that puts his body on the line every play because of his superior running skills, Newton certainly isn’t the same player who won the MVP and took the Panthers to the Super Bowl in the 2015 season. His arm strength, not the best at the start of the season, clearly tailed off as the games wore on. But his shoulder did hold up to the very end, and that, in Newton’s own words, told him everything he needed to know about it getting better going forward.
But above all was the case of coronavirus, and how much it took from Newton’s ability to assimilate into the complicated, detailed offense run by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. Newton was refreshingly candid during the season and did not make excuses for poor play, going as far to say he knew he could get benched at any time for underperforming. But he did reveal some of what he went through in an appearance on the “I Am Athlete” podcast with former players Brandon Marshall, Fred Taylor, and Chad Johnson.
“I was one of the first football players to catch it, and I’m over here like, ‘Man, how did I get it? Where did it come from?’ And everybody’s in this panic mode, as we still should be,” he said. “But yet through it all, it just happened so fast. When I came back, it was something that that’s where the lack of an offseason, the lack of time really being invested in the system kind of showed itself.
“By the time I came back, I didn’t feel comfortable physically, skillfully. A lot of that discomfort came pre-snap. I’m lost. I’m thinking too much. ... The offense kept going, and I was stopped and stagnant for two weeks. By the time I came back, it was new terminology. ... I wasn’t just trying to learn a system for what it was, I was learning a, let’s be honest, 20-year system in two months.”
For reference: In his first three pre-COVID games, Newton averaged 238 passing yards (including his season-high 397 in a loss to Seattle), leading the Patriots to a 2-1 start. After sitting out against the Chiefs, he returned to average just 161.9 passing yards over his final 12 games, six touchdown passes against eight interceptions showing not only the inefficiency of the passing game, but the reluctance to even use it. Newton had eight of his 12 rushing TDs after his illness.
The Patriots finished a disappointing 7-9, missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, and were left seeing their dear, departed hero Tom Brady take the Bucs to a Super Bowl title.
As tough as that might have been to watch, hurt feelings aren’t a reason to abandon the Newton experiment. The search for a viable quarterback is the crux of NFL success and the bane of every franchise that can’t do it. It’s why the Saints will miss Drew Brees so much as he heads into retirement, why the Cowboys broke the bank for Dak Prescott despite his lack of postseason success, why the Texans are desperate to hang on to an unhappy Deshaun Watson, why the Rams and Lions would make such a seismic trade and swap Jared Goff for Matt Stafford.
Maybe the Patriots still have a big move in them, but judging by the reaction of the current team, Newton is more than enough.
With veteran captain Devin McCourty leading the way, the Twitterverse was replete with exclamation points and happy emojis over Newton’s own celebratory Instagram post, which he headlined, “Run it back!”
“Full locker room this year ... these Cam lead conversations will [be] hilarious,” McCourty tweeted, supporting what he had said previously on the podcast he does with brother and teammate Jason.
“I’ll start off by saying I wouldn’t mind seeing my guy Cam Newton come back,” Devin said in January “I thought he had a tough year coming in — no offseason, no anything.”
From the old to the young, he got plenty of agreement. Edelman responded with a “Run it back” post of his own, while former first-round pick N’Keal Harry had told the Globe’s Nicole Yang how much he would like to continue catching passes from Newton.
“He helped me so much throughout the season, not only on the field with football stuff but with off-the-field stuff, just more about being a professional, about life,” Harry said. “He really helped me in all aspects of life last year, so I really do appreciate him for that.
“At the same time, he was a very fun person to play with. I would love to have him back and be able to play with him again.”
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