It’s difficult to imagine the Patriots without Tom Brady. For two decades, Brady and Bill Belichick set the standard for both professional football and professional sports in America. Their partnership lasted through entire eras of the NFL. It contextualized the passage of time, and the league’s past and present. When Brady left for Tampa Bay this spring, the outsized importance of the move drove people to wonder what would come next in Foxborough. After a few months of intrigue, and a stretch of Jarrett Stidham–related delusion, we finally have the answer. Cam Newton is a Patriot. With his arrival, a new era of the franchise begins.
From the moment that Newton was cut by Carolina in March, the “Cam to the Patriots” shipping provided fodder for NFL fanfic. A marriage between the two seemed like the setup for a thrilling football experiment. The almost inconceivable level of sustained success that Belichick and Brady had in New England inevitably led to debates about how to dole out credit for a remarkable run that included six Super Bowl titles. Folks wondered what Belichick could accomplish with a different quarterback, specifically the sort of mobile QB that he’d publicly fawned over in the past. As Newton’s health and job security deteriorated in Carolina, Cam believers were left dreaming about what the all-time talent’s career would have looked like in the hands of a more competent organization. When the Pats seemingly made no effort to bring in an outside QB this offseason, those rumblings about Newton and the Patriots only got louder. An agreement was almost too obvious.
Tempting as it may be to look at the Pats signing Newton for next to nothing and see it as another masterstroke by a hooded puppeteer lording over the NFL, plenty of outside factors played a role in Newton’s quiet market. Newton’s health status—following offseason surgery for a Lisfranc injury and ongoing concerns about his throwing shoulder—made some teams wary of rolling the dice on him in 2020. The Colts and Chargers—who opted for healthy veterans Philip Rivers and Tyrod Taylor, respectively—chose certainty over upside at QB. Other teams may have been reluctant to disrupt the existing dynamic of the QB room by bringing in someone with Newton’s presence and résumé. Some interpreted Washington’s decision to add Kyle Allen as a backup rather than sign Newton as an indictment of the latter’s health status. But it wouldn’t be easy for new coach Ron Rivera to be patient with second-year starter Dwayne Haskins if his backup were an established star with an MVP award in his trophy case. The same line of thinking could apply to Chicago and Las Vegas, which preferred to sign fringe QBs who give the incumbents an inside track to the starting job. Then there were teams like the Jaguars, who have every incentive to give their young QB a chance and little incentive to win games in 2020.
None of those arrangements is better than having a healthy Cam Newton under center, and some of that front-office rationalizing is ultimately nonsense. But you can see how we got here. As other teams made excuses for not going after Newton and otherwise acted in desperation, the Patriots were once again able to follow a deliberate timeline. New England’s success and organizational structure generally make Belichick his own authority. And in a world often run by panic moves and self-preservation, he has a distinct advantage.
A union between Newton and Belichick always made sense in the abstract. Now that it’s a reality, the question is what it will look like. There aren’t many examples of a Belichick–Josh McDaniels offense operating without Brady, but there are enough to get us started. When Jacoby Brissett was forced into starting duty in 2016 following Brady’s Deflategate suspension and an injury to Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots immediately embraced quarterback runs as part of their offense. In Brissett’s first start, he ran eight times for 48 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown on a keeper around the right side. New England had 39 total rushes that night while passing just 19 times. The Patriots likely won’t need to protect Newton to the degree they insulated a rookie quarterback in his first start, but that 27-0 win over the Texans is just one example of how nimble New England can be with its game-planning.
Along with the Patriots’ past, the current makeup of both their roster and success stories around the league suggest that the team could pivot to a more run-heavy approach focused on Newton. Belichick didn’t do much to bolster New England’s receiving corps this offseason. The Patriots’ wide receiver unit consists of Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu, and not much else. A healthy Harry and a full season from Sanu (who was acquired at the 2019 trade deadline) should make that group better than it was last year, but overall it remains a fairly underwhelming trio. Instead of improving his receivers, Belichick focused on adding bulk to New England’s offense. The Pats scooped up former Packers fullback Dan Vitale to replace longtime blocking back James Develin, and spent a pair of third-round picks on tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. With all those big bodies, an excellent offensive line, and a talented collection of running backs, New England’s personnel looks a lot like the offense the Ravens have built around Lamar Jackson. And that doesn’t feel like an accident.
Tom Brady's out. Cam Newton's in.— The Ringer (@ringer) June 29, 2020
How did the former NFL MVP find himself unsigned into late June before landing with Bill Belichick? Coming soon: 'The Cam Chronicles,' the only podcast dedicated to the life and career of the NFL QB. pic.twitter.com/0WO0JrHqCy
Belichick has always been quick to embrace schematic innovations. In 2007, New England spearheaded a leaguewide transition to the shotgun formation as Brady broke passing records with Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Four years later, the Patriots adopted a two-tight-end approach that mystified opposing defenses and made Rob Gronkowski a superstar. And recently, as defenses got smaller to combat spread-out, pass-happy offenses, New England has been one of few smart teams that has countered by embracing heavy personnel packages.
One of the reasons that the Patriots have thrived under Belichick is that they never fight the tide. Belichick is always looking for ways to make things easier for his players and more difficult for opponents. Right now, the most effective way to accomplish that is with a quarterback who can beat you with his arm and his legs. Belichick has watched for years as players like Newton and Lamar Jackson have given defenses fits. In 2017, Newton shredded the Pats for more than 350 total yards and four touchdowns in a 33-30 Panthers win. When discussing Newton with the media earlier that week, Belichick said that among all the mobile QBs in the NFL, Cam was the “hardest guy to deal with.” And as simple as it sounds, that observation lies at the center of all this.
Belichick has long preached that each new season exists independent of any other. New England’s annual tweaks to scheme and personnel are an extension of that idea. The Patriots have always tried to stay ahead of the curve, but with Brady in place, the scope of those changes was limited. “The offense really hasn’t changed,” former Pats running Kevin Faulk told me in 2018. “As long as Tom Brady’s there, the offense isn’t going to change.” Each iteration of the Patriots offense was a slight variant of its predecessor, grafted onto the same, Brady-shaped foundation.
Bringing in Newton represents the first real departure from that approach in more than 20 years. Now, the ideal version of their offense will look a lot like what the Ravens have: a power running game built around a do-everything quarterback, and vertical play-action shots that stem from that running game. It’s no coincidence that two of the best stretches of Newton’s career—his 2015 MVP campaign and the first half of the 2018 season—coincided with the two highest play-action rates of his time in Carolina. New England has spent the past few years shifting to a more run-centric approach that marginalized Brady’s importance. The Patriots will enter this season ranked third in percentage of the cap spent at running back and offensive line. Newton’s presence seems to help maximize that formula. Every aspect of how the Patriots are built, where the league is going, and the skill set of a healthy Cam Newton provides some insight into what this offense will look like.
The glaring caveat, of course, is whether Newton is healthy. It’s been about 20 months since he took the field at anything close to 100 percent. A shoulder injury torpedoed the second half of his promising 2018 campaign, and the Lisfranc injury suffered in last year’s preseason spoiled his comeback effort before it even got going. But that’s where the Patriots’ lack of urgency again plays into their advantage. If Newton isn’t healthy, if he can’t be the centerpiece of an offense tailored to highlight his strengths, then the Patriots are no worse off than they would have been otherwise.
Newton’s contract is almost identical to the one-year reclamation deal that Ryan Tannehill inked with the Titans last season. If Newton hits all of his incentives, it’ll be worth the same as the guaranteed amount that the Raiders gave Marcus Mariota in March. The Patriots paid Newton the going rate for former starters looking to revive their careers, and the upside to their gamble looks a lot different. Signing Newton gives the Patriots a chance to get the most out of the 2020 season and a quietly aging roster, without sacrificing Belichick’s ability to completely remake his team in 2021 if it all goes wrong.
New England has a chance to contend in 2020 without leveraging its future, and Belichick has ushered in the post-Brady reality with a move that includes virtually no risk and potentially massive returns. The Cam Newton era in New England may look different from the Brady years, but by waiting out the rest of the league, the Patriots took a familiar route to get here.