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Cam Newton and the Patriots Are Headed in the Wrong Direction

The New England QB was benched on Sunday during a 33-6 loss to the 49ers, but the Patriots’ issues go far beyond who’s under center

San Francisco 49ers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Patriots go as their quarterback goes, and in the past two weeks, they have followed Cam Newton in the wrong direction. The one-time league MVP’s impressive start with New England has fizzled recently, reaching an unpleasant nadir Sunday afternoon. Newton threw three interceptions in the Patriots’ 33-6 loss to the 49ers, and early in the fourth quarter, with New England trailing by 27 points, he was benched in favor of Jarrett Stidham.

Newton won’t be sitting for long; Bill Belichick told reporters after the loss that Newton will remain New England’s starter, and that Stidham entered the game for experience’s sake. However, Sunday’s development brings to focus greater concerns about the Patriots’ outlook that extend beyond Newton’s recent struggles.

Newton’s stat line against the Niners wasn’t pretty. He finished 9 of 15 for 98 yards and posted a 39.7 passer rating, the third-lowest mark of his career. Newton added five carries for 19 yards, but simply put, the Patriots offense looked remarkably stagnant. In a unit lacking star power at the skill positions, Newton’s own struggles have only been magnified.

After returning from the COVID-19 list, which had kept him out of games and practices for 13 days, Newton had a rough outing against the Broncos. He struggled to create much behind an injury-riddled offensive line, going 17-for-25 with 157 yards and two picks, and averaging an adjusted 2.68 yards per attempt—and at one point appeared to injure his hand—as the Patriots lost 18-12 to Denver. Newton seemingly regressed even further against San Francisco, producing one of the worst outings of his career thus far.

The headlines will read that Newton struggled, but even with his poor play, the QB shouldn’t bear all of the criticism. Part of the reason Tom Brady is experiencing so much success in Tampa Bay is because of his talented supporting cast, which was considered one of the NFL’s best before adding four-time All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. Newton, meanwhile, is playing in an offense whose best playmaker is the oft-injured 34-year-old Julian Edelman. Asking a quarterback to elevate this unit to even a highly competitive level is a tough task, even for Superman.

Then there’s the fact that the rest of this Patriots team isn’t nearly as talented as previous rosters. New England is missing a league-high eight players—including linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon—who opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. The players who remain allowed San Francisco running back Jeff Wilson Jr. to record 112 yards on the ground and rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk to haul in six catches for 115 yards. Belichick has recently noted a lack of practice time contributing to poor performances, but Sunday’s performance appears to be a byproduct of fielding a roster that lacks enough skill to compensate for its shortcomings.

“We didn’t perform well enough in any area,” Belichick said. “Coaching, playing offense defense special teams, running passing defending the run, defending the pass, ball security, tackling blocking—none of it was good enough.”

To make matters worse for the Patriots, second-year receiver N’Keal Harry left Sunday’s game with a head injury and offensive lineman Joe Thuney suffered a minor low-ankle sprain. Meanwhile, Jimmy Garoppolo—Brady’s former heir apparent in New England—earned a comfortable victory without having a very good day, in large part because his skill players are capable of elevating him or, at least picking up the slack when he underperforms. Unless the Patriots make some roster moves ahead of the trade deadline, Newton is unlikely to be afforded that same situation. And until he finds a way to get back to playing at a high level and maximizing the offense around him, New England’s dreadful start to the 2020 season is unlikely to turn around any time soon. When asked specifically about Newton’s outing, Belichick didn’t point fingers, instead hinting that the Patriots’ 2-4 start is not solely on the quarterback.

“I think we need to do a better job in all areas,” Belichick said. “I don’t think there’s anything that you could say we don’t need work on.”