Cam Newton’s final throw in a Patriots uniform will go down as an interception, and that’s about the only thing the abbreviated Cam Newton era will ever have in common with the historic Tom Brady one that preceded it.
Yet in searching for images to remember across the strange year-plus Newton spent with New England, the ball Blake Martinez stripped from Jakobi Meyers in the final preseason game Sunday against the Giants shouldn’t lead the way any more than the final ill-fated throw Brady handed to Logan Ryan in the playoff loss to Tennessee that ended the 2019 season should.
Think of Newton instead as he stalked the sideline midway through the third quarter Sunday, determined to track down Mac Jones.
Jones, the rookie who just replaced Newton atop the Patriots’ depth chart as a result of Newton’s stunning release Tuesday, had just led the Patriots on a 50-yard touchdown drive, and Newton was looking to share some love. Jones, helmet still on, had no idea Newton was behind him. But Newton, buoyant and bouncing as he was in the best of his Patriots times, wouldn’t give up, capping a good 20-yard march with an emphatic slap of the hand.
“That’s Cam for you,” Jones said after the game. “He’s happy, and he’s a great teammate. So, I’m happy to be in the same room as him and just learn from him, because he’s a great dude.”
The room is Jones’s now, and sooner than expected.
Between the shadow of Newton and his lengthy NFL résumé and Bill Belichick’s legendary distrust of playing a rookie at the game’s most important position, it sure seemed Newton would be the starter in the season opener against Miami, and that the job would be his at least until his play proved otherwise.
But no amount of effervescence and enthusiasm can replace good judgment, and not just the kind of football misjudgment that results in a picked-off pass. In choosing not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and thus subjecting himself to strict quarantine protocols for any potential exposure to the virus, Newton made it far too easy for Belichick to cut him loose.
And that’s on him. He handed the Patriots a free look at their future without him, handed Jones a free pass to impress, the price he paid for the “miscommunication” following an out-of-state medical appointment that cost him five days away from the team. And when the future without him wasn’t nearly as scary as feared, and the present work of Jones was far more advanced than anticipated, Tuesday’s news suddenly doesn’t seem all that shocking after all.
The chances of Belichick expounding on his thought process are as likely as him sharing all those feelings about Brady winning the Super Bowl last year: zero. But the coach’s longstanding espousal of a team-above-self philosophy can’t have jibed well with Newton’s willingness to risk so much time away, especially because Newton knows better than anyone what the risk of catching COVID presents, given the disastrous effect it had on his season last year.
Newton missed only one start in the pandemic-altered 2020 schedule, and that was a testament to his conditioning and dedication to returning from his illness. And also to his desire to be there for his teammates.
In the long view, Newton deserves to be remembered for those admirable traits. Yet it’s clear there is no simple way to file away a complicated tenure that occasionally dazzled, often disappointed, and ultimately ended with more of a whimper than a bang.
“He definitely brought energy to the locker room and the practice field,” teammate James White said Tuesday. “He lifted spirits in the room, worked extremely hard, and tried to give his best each and every day. It was fun to have him here for the past year or so.
“Cam did his best job for us, competed extremely hard. It’s unfortunate to see him go. He’s a good football player and I hope he gets another opportunity to land on his feet.”
Newton leaves with similarly good thoughts, sharing the following on Instagram: “I really appreciate all the love and support during this time but I must say … please don’t feel sorry for me!! I’m good. One finger, one pinky, one thumb — love.”
From a media perspective, Newton was fun to cover. And from a football perspective, there is no reason to doubt how much fun he was to coach. Belichick was always full of praise for the man he ultimately chose to lead the first post-Brady team.
Newton was thoughtful in interviews, available after games, brought his unparalleled collection of fashionable hats and suits, shared insight into his public and professional lives, and even flashed the on-field form that should rightly cast him as one of the best, if not the best, running quarterback of all time. But his arm and his accuracy never replicated his MVP/Super Bowl form of 2015.
He became a stopgap, the man who bridged the Brady days to the Jones ones, the man to take the hit for following a legend. Think Bill Guthridge following Dean Smith before Roy Williams.
Newton is also the man who made it a point to chase down Jones during that game Sunday evening just to let him know how happy he was to see the rookie doing well.
The job is Jones’s now, and with it comes the chance to start his own New England legacy. As Patriots captain David Andrews put it Tuesday, “Now the real work starts.”