Ever since news broke that the New England Patriots have signed Cam Newton to a one-year free agency deal, the former Carolina Panthers quarterback has been the subject of intense debate — whether on social media, sports talk radio, or this here website. Along the way, there have been speculation and questions raised about what he can or cannot do and what the 31-year-old would be able to bring to the table as the most decorated member of the Patriots’ current quarterback depth chart.
In order to shine a clearer light on the former NFL MVP, let’s therefore run down some common misconceptions that have been brought up since Newton arrived in New England on Sunday.
Newton’s skillset won’t fit with the Patriots’ scheme
For the past two decades, the Patriots had the greatest quarterback in league history under center — one that brought a different skillset to the table than Newton and therefore had an offense built around his strengths and to cover up his weaknesses in the athletic department. However, even when Tom Brady was still in New England, the team showed that it would be able to adapt to needs of the personnel. That included the quarterback position, as evidenced by Brady’s four-game suspension in 2016.
While Jimmy Garoppolo offered a similar skillset as Brady’s, number three quarterback and then-rookie Jacoby Brissett was and still is a different kind of player. When the Patriots were therefore forced to start him following a shoulder injury suffered by Garoppolo, they changed their offense accordingly to include more misdirection plays built around Brissett’s mobility. It would be naïve to believe that the coaching staff and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in particular will not approach Newton in the same way.
Film analyst Brett Kollmann’s take on the Newton-Patriots collaboration sums up the scheme fit quite well, with a focus on the quarterback’s ability in the quick passing game:
Just from a pure football perspective, Newton is a perfect fit for this Patriots system. New England traditionally has been one of the few offenses around the league to not just thrive with the quick passing game but to build their whole identity around it. Newton himself is by far at his best as a quarterback when he’s operating one of those wide open, up-tempo, quick passing attacks.
McDaniels will adjust his offense to fit Newton’s abilities as a quick passer, and also a player capable of making the correct reads at the line of scrimmage at a consistent rate. Make no mistake, the Auburn product is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL and capable of doing some of the stuff Brady did in New England as well: reading defenses and adjusting to looks, and making decisive quick-hit decisions with the football in his hands.
If you think the Patriots and Newton are not a match based on preconceived notions about his skillset in combination with what the team liked to do while Brady was still around, plus what McDaniels did with Brissett, think again. If the ex-Panther is capable of quickly adapting to the terminology and intricacies of New England’s interpretation of the Erhardt-Perkins system — and there is little doubt he will do just that — the match could turn out to be one made in football heaven.
Newton is a big play waiting to happen
When Newton arrived in the league in 2011 and quickly was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, his big-play potential was on display right away. This was especially true in the running game: Newton the ball carrier averaged 5.6 yards on 126 rushing attempts and scored 14 touchdowns on the ground (along the way breaking a position record set by ex-Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan when he found the endzone 12 times as a runner in 1976).
As a pure passer, however, Newton has not been in the same category as of late because that is not what his skillset is. As noted above, he is at his best when working a quick attack that builds on his rhythm and decision making — something former Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner recognized when he arrived in Carolina in 2018. Turner adapted the team’s offense to take advantage of his quarterback’s strengths, and that meant fewer deep passing attempts and a focus on the short and intermediate parts of the field. Sound familiar?
The numbers speak for themselves. With Turner running the show on the sidelines, Newton produced his best season as a passer since his MVP year of 2015. He became more efficient and despite a shoulder injury limiting him over the second half of the season finished the year among the league’s top quarterbacks. This was largely due to the offense’s new-found focus on systematically working the football down the field, and it resulted in Newton finishing his 2018 campaign with an adjusted completion percentage of 78%.
The number ranked him not just as the seventh-most accurate passer in football that year, it also placed him a) above the league average of 75.3% and b) above the man he helped replace: Brady’s adjusted completion rate in 2018 — i.e. not counting wide receiver drops and throwaways — was 75.6%. Despite Newton having a tough time completing on deep passes, and finishing the season with a completion percentage of just 37.5% on attempts of more than 20 yards, he still was an accurate QB.
Newton is no leader…
Cam Newton certainly is a unique character in the NFL, but the fancy postgame outfits and vibrant on-field persona often distract from the fact that the veteran has also been the Panthers’ emotional leader for quite some time now. Nevertheless, his leadership has been questioned repeatedly by those outside the organization — from Skip Bayless to Booger McFarland to Colin Cowherd to Michael Vick.
That said, tight end Greg Olsen, who spent his entire nine years in Carolina alongside Newton, has a different opinion.
“This has been a storyline that has been circulating since he’s come into the league. It’s really become an exhausting storyline. Guys enjoy saying it on the national level because it’s a hot take. Something that garners a lot of headlines and reaction. But there’s not a lot of substance behind it. I don’t even know if it deserves attention at all. For what Cam has accomplished, where we’ve come as an organization since we drafted him, I think all that speaks for itself,” Olsen told USA Today’s Steven Ruiz in 2017. “Around the locker room, it’s a storyline that’s not even given much credibility.”
Newton will have to prove himself a leader in his new environment, but he is entering a locker room filled with veterans who have established a status inside the organization and the league — from Matthew Slater, David Andrews and Julian Edelman, to Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty — and will certainly help him adapt. The quarterback’s leadership style in Carolina may or may not have been different than what the Patriots have in this group of veterans, but that does not mean he did not lead.
…and Bill Belichick will ask him to completely change his character
Just two days after the signing was first reported, infamous Boston sports talk radio hosts Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti criticized Newton on air for his celebrations and wondered whether or not Bill Belichick would ask him to change. As a counter to the segment, a clip from the 2009 NFL Films documentary A Football Life: Bill Belichick made the rounds on Twitter showing the Patriots’ head coach encouraging his players to play the game with emotion.
So what will it be for Newton?
The answer, as always with Belichick (and life in general) will likely not be as black-and-white as portrayed on social media. Newton will not be asked to completely change his character to play a role he is not comfortable playing both on and off the field. However, he will have to lead by example and therefore be tasked with setting a positive example for his teammates whether he does or does not win the starting quarterback job this summer.
Newton is injury prone
This one we have already talked about in quite some detail after the deal was first reported. There is no denying that Newton has built up quite a long injury history over the course of his career, but despite all the medical issues has missed only seven of a possible 119 games before a broken foot forced the Panthers to shut him down two weeks into the 2019 regular season. The former first overall draft pick has struggled to stay fully healthy since arriving in the NFL, yes, but he has repeatedly fought through numerous injuries to take the field in spite of them.
Newton’s injury history therefore has to be seen in a more nuanced fashion than just slapping the “injury prone” label on him. His physical readiness coming off an almost year-long stint on injured reserve and a nagging shoulder issue before that will be one of the biggest topics heading into training camp and the preseason, but the situation as a whole is not an accurate representation when it comes to Newton’s time in the league up until this point.