Last month, Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears was asked on a conference call if, after 23 years working in New England, he would refute the idea that coaches or players don’t have a lot of fun working there.
“I guess I wouldn’t be here for 20-plus years if I wasn’t enjoying it. If I wasn’t having fun. I think everybody has what they consider their own gauge for what they want to do,” Fears said. “I enjoy competing, so, hey, that’s what it’s all about to me. There’s no fun, there’s no joy in anybody’s village if you’re not finding a way to freaking win. Let’s be honest, who’s having fun then?”
The concept of the Patriots being the NFL’s No Fun Team has existed for some time. Some players and coaches have embraced it while others have found it irritating, especially after Eagles offensive lineman Lane Johnson called the Patriots a “fear-based organization” in early 2018. That Eagles team struck a nerve mostly because they beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but also because of how they goaded them in the lead-up to the game. They wore underdog masks and dished out bulletin board material, the latter being a fireable offense at times in New England. When they won, with a backup quarterback and after successfully converting several fourth-down gambles, it was a victory both for Philadelphia and for any fan fatigued by the enduring success of the Patriots’ straitlaced demeanor and their relentless commitment to discipline.
In the aftermath of that loss, Johnson’s comments became a sensitive subject. Fears is familiar with the characterization of New England as a joyless organization, which is why he answered the question seriously. He said that people do make trade-offs to work there and the culture is not for everyone, but that it’s unfair to say that “fun” is unwelcome in Foxborough.
When we talk about the Patriots and enjoyment, we’re really talking about the intersection of merriment and William Stephen Belichick. Many question whether the two ever converge, suspicions that were raised after New England signed noted fun-haver Cam Newton. The former Panthers quarterback and 2015 MVP has star power and a gravitational pull to his personality. There was also a considerable amount of intrigue about his readiness to play this season, given that he missed most of 2019 due to injury. His arrival was a popular topic of conversation in Boston sports media, especially the question of how he would fit within an organization that is notorious for its aversion to individualism to the point that coaches will sometimes speak about position groups only as a whole rather than any specific player. Newton’s predecessor, Tom Brady, had developed a reputation for taking hard coaching well during his 20-year New England tenure, but even he grew tired of it by the end.
Two months after he signed with the Patriots, Newton appears to have seamlessly adapted to his new surroundings. In fact, it seems like Belichick has done more to mold himself to Newton’s needs than the other way around. It’s been, as Newton said Monday on Boston sports radio station WEEI, “a match made in heaven.”
During training camp, Newton has danced all around the practice field, developed secret handshakes with receivers and given nicknames to his fellow quarterbacks—Jarrett “Stiddy” Stidham and Brian “Hoyster” Hoyer. During a warmup session in late August, he dabbed and clapped between stretches as gospel singer Kirk Franklin boomed from the speakers. At one point, Newton grabbed a teammate by both arms and swung him around like they were ballroom dancing. Presumably, Newton had been given aux cord honors for the day and was enjoying the moment.
Cam Newton got the Patriots playing Kirk Franklin during practice. pic.twitter.com/kIxHarsw75— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) August 30, 2020
None of this has seemed to bother Belichick—he seems to appreciate it. Newton won the starting quarterback job and was made a team captain, according to The Boston Globe. Captains are voted on by players, but Patriots captains always seem to be Belichick favorites like Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty. (As for Newton’s music selections, if you don’t think Belichick could be bothered with what goes on the practice playlist, you don’t know how much Bon Jovi pops up on there some days.) Belichick has praised Newton often, publicly and without much prompting, including in a recent SiriusXM NFL Radio interview when he offered superlatives including but not limited to:
- “He’s got a great personality. He gets along with everybody. He’s very social and has a great presence, whether it is in a small room of a couple people or in a bigger group.”
- “He’s very, very competitive on the field. He always wants to do his best and do better than the guy he’s competing against. You see that from—everybody’s competitive—but I think there are different degrees of it, and it looks like, based on what I’ve seen, I would put him in the top echelon of that.”
- “Some players like to work on things that they’re good at, like if you’re strong on a bench press, you just keep throwing more weight on the bench. But Cam is the type of player that works on things that he’s not as good at and really tries to improve on a daily basis, and that’s something that I really respect about him.”
We’ll stop it there, but Belichick didn’t.
Newton has said he’d jumped to some of his own conclusions about what New England would be like, not all of which have proved accurate. Shared goals have given him plenty in common with Belichick so far.
“I went down a list of things I expect from Bill Belichick, just like Bill Belichick wants a list of things he wants out of Cam Newton,” Newton told WEEI. “I think the narrative coming here was kind of stereotypical to an unjust eye.”
Newton has faced a lot of criticism in his career and has acknowledged mistakes he’s made in the past. As he told WEEI, he feels there’s a perception of him as “a prima donna” that’s rooted in biases commonly held against Black athletes. Newton didn’t elaborate on what was on those lists he and Belichick shared, but finding a way to win was presumably at the top. That’s why this was always a much more natural pairing than it might have seemed at first glance. Belichick is always coaching, whether he’s on the field or doing a radio interview, so when he compliments Newton, he’s doing so in part to send a message. Belichick has made a career out of winning with players no one else in the NFL wanted. When Brady decided he’d rather play for another team and signed with the Buccaneers in March, Belichick needed a new quarterback. Eventually, he landed on Newton, who was available for just a $1.05 million base salary. Maybe both recognized that they could help each other.
By handing the offense to Newton, Belichick has made it clear that the Patriots have no intention of tanking. They’re rebuilding on the fly, infusing their roster with youth in certain positions, like tight end, while continuing to take advantage of their veteran core. It’s a similar model to the one Belichick followed in the years from 2008 to 2012 to build a bridge from the early Super Bowl teams to the more recent ones. It requires the team to hit on its draft picks to keep the roster young and competitive, something the Patriots did when they selected starters or key contributors like Jerod Mayo, Patrick Chung, Matt Slater, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty, Nate Solder, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, and Rob Gronkowski.
They haven’t been able to repeat that same draft success in recent years, though, and those misses have taken a toll. Around this time last year, the Patriots moved on from their second-round draft pick, cornerback Duke Dawson. This year, they moved on from veteran wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who they spent a second-round pick on to acquire from the Falcons last season. Neither had a meaningful moment in Foxborough. Opt-outs, injuries, and free-agent departures have left a roster that’s paper-thin at linebacker and features two rookies at tight end. Recent high draft picks like offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn, running back Sony Michel, and wide receiver N’Keal Harry have struggled with injuries that have limited their contributions.
Newton, then, is being asked to support this group at least long enough for Belichick to develop these players or add more talent. It’s a tall task: The Patriots’ 2019 crop of receivers, according to Pro Football Focus, “collectively had the worst season of any receivers in the 14 years PFF has been grading every snap of NFL games.” During a Patriots-Giants game last October, the roster was so thin that injuries to tight end Matt LaCosse and fullback Jakob Johnson forced the Patriots to play with a single personnel grouping—11 personnel, with one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers—for most of the second half.
“I don’t think that’s ever happened in 20 years,” Brady said after that game.
If Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can do enough with Newton to make that group a little better, though, that, plus a good defense and good infrastructure, could be enough to compete in the AFC East. There were a few clear problem areas in the Patriots’ offense last season that Newton is well-suited to solve this year, particularly short-yardage rushing, which has struggled for the better part of the past two years and was especially poor in 2019.
Last season, New England ranked 17th in Football Outsiders’ power success rate, which essentially measures a team’s rushing efficiency in short yardage. They were 19th in rushing efficiency in the red zone and scored touchdowns on fewer than half of their red zone trips for the first time since 2003.
From Baker Mayfield to Tim Tebow, the Patriots have had a long series of flirtations with quarterbacks more mobile than Brady, and now they finally have one in Newton. McDaniels can add designed runs for Newton to the playbook as well as an assortment of powers, counters, and sweeps that should be especially helpful near the goal line. Newton holds the NFL record for career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (58) and has picked up 367 rushing first downs in 125 career games.
It’s harder to figure what exactly would constitute success as an overall passer in the Patriots’ offense, but Newton probably doesn’t have to recapture his form from his 2015 MVP season to reach that threshold. Before suffering a shoulder injury that would require surgery in the offseason, Newton had completed 69.6 percent of his passes for an average of 245 yards through 11 games in 2018, with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Results like that this year could reinvigorate the offense, but might be unrealistic given the inexperience of the Patriots’ receivers beyond Julian Edelman. An optimist would note, though, that Harry has some traits in common with big, contested-catch receivers like Devin Funchess or Kelvin Benjamin, who Newton had established productive connections with in Carolina.
We’ll start to see what that offense looks like Sunday when Newton and the Patriots play the Dolphins, a matchup rich with symbolism. The Titans knocked the 2019 Patriots out of the playoffs, but it was a Dolphins team with nothing to play for that truly exposed their weakness by beating them in New England in a Week 17 game that cost the Patriots a first-round playoff bye. That same Dolphins team is stocked with coaches and players from previous Patriots teams, including head coach Brian Flores, who has been part of a significant exodus of brainpower and talent in the past two years.
Six months after that game, Belichick signed Newton. It may be that the move doesn’t work out or that even if Newton plays well, the roster isn’t deep or skilled enough to win the AFC East for the 12th year in a row. But this pairing gives both coach and quarterback their best chance at contending and the ability to surprise competition.
Fears is the best example of someone who’s been with the Patriots forever and hasn’t had the joy stamped out of him one bit. He runs laps with his players with a smile, jokes constantly, and loves the musical Mamma Mia. For years, his best friend and colleague was former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired this offseason and who Fears spoke about on that same call.
“I don’t think you replace a guy like Dante Scarnecchia, what he was,” Fears said. “That’s something that’s special, and I’ll always have that [friendship] with Dante. But as far as what we’ll be doing in here [offensive line coach] Cole [Popovich] is going to step in, [co-offensive line coach] Carmen [Bricillo] is going to step in, and I think they’re going to do a hell of a job.”
The train keeps moving and doesn’t stop for anyone. It’s that cycle—not some allergy to personality—that most often comes off as harsh about the Patriots. This season, it looks like the Patriots have determined Newton offers them their best chance to keep things rolling. If that’s the case, he’ll fit right in.