There are three things Bill Belichick likes to do: win, get great value from his players, and do interesting things on the football field. Cam Newton can help with all three.
Belichick is the best football coach in history, and he is also, well, a dork. He does not broadcast this often behind an alternating series of grunts and glares, but he cares deeply about things in football that exactly zero other people are considering at that moment. He once talked for nearly 600 words in a press conference about whether he wished he’d coached in previous eras, and detailed the Pop Warner team he played on at age 10 that was sponsored by a Ford dealership and ran the single wing offense, and wistfully described playing the wing-T in high school and the wishbone in college.
Belichick has not done everything there is to do on a football field, but he has certainly thought about everything there is to do on a football field. He is the coach responsible for the only successful drop kick in the NFL since 1941. He has made wide receivers into defensive backs out of necessity and creativity. He has scrapped entire schemes because he couldn’t find the right players in free agency. The important thing to consider, at this moment, is that the coach who can think of everything will be paired with a quarterback who, if healthy, can do everything. Putting Newton and Belichick together has the possibility to be football dork heaven with little downside. It is an admirable effort to replace Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback in history. It is, in short, a great idea.
Newton signed a one-year deal with the Patriots on Sunday worth a maximum of $7.5 million. In doing so, the 2015 MVP landed in the most intriguing spot for his second act. Belichick, coming off one of the most fruitful relationships in the history of sports with Brady, landed perhaps the most intriguing available player for his next act. Belichick and Brady, along with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, have reinvented the sport every few years, helped change the way teams are built a handful of times, and gotten a bunch of opposing coaches fired. It was two decades of near perfection. Replicating that success without Brady will be difficult, and Belichick is not trying to do so in one year. Newton’s signing is not guaranteed to work—far from it—but it doesn’t have to. If the worst thing that happens is the Patriots spent less than 1 percent of the salary cap on a player that never got healthy, and everyone goes their separate ways, well, it was a chance worth taking for both sides: Newton would end up getting another job and the Patriots would try to fill the Brady void a different way. To see if there’s something there, the Patriots will pay Newton less than the Dolphins are paying Ryan Fitzpatrick, the same amount the Chargers are paying Tyrod Taylor, and about $14 million less than Derek Carr and Jacoby Brissett will make in 2020. None of these players have the upside of a healthy Newton. Even if that player doesn’t exist in 2020, it’s worth $7.5 million to find out. Newton could spin a solid season in New England into tens of millions of dollars in free agency. The Patriots could use a solid season from Newton, pair it with a great defense, and make a run at another AFC East title. The quarterback market is strange at the moment, and no one takes advantage of the market quite like the Patriots.
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
The unknowns around Newton’s injury are not ideal, but using them as an argument against New England signing him on the cheap is ridiculous. The alternative is Jarrett Stidham, who has the unknown of never starting an NFL game. Taking flyers is how Belichick wins. It’s how he got Randy Moss, Mike Vrabel, and Rodney Harrison. Brady was the engine of the Patriots’ dynasty, by far its most important player, but you cannot tell the story of New England’s run without the players Belichick picked up on the cheap after another team gave up on them. Some of them—hell, most of them—don’t work out. But the point of value signings is that the bad experiences matter less than the good ones that win you a lot of games. The Patriots now have options—Newton’s signing does not mean Stidham can’t continue to develop, or that Stidham can’t start games this season. His addition simply strengthens them at the most important position in sports. The Patriots’ total outlay for quarterbacks is less than 19 quarterbacks will make on their own this year. There are no sure things in that quarterback room, but for replacing Brady and two decades of continuity, in the midst of the weirdest offseason in the history of sports, they are doing as well as can be reasonably expected.
The Patriots have an opportunity to make the rest of the NFL look like idiots, same as they have for two decades. Newton does, too. There was no reason for teams not to at least call him this offseason. None. If you needed a starter, he could be that easily if he’s healthy. If you didn’t need a starter, he could be a cheap backup, or potentially a trade chip. If you feared he’d be too expensive, well, you can call and find out. If you thought he wouldn’t take a backup role—he reportedly wasn’t interested in one earlier this spring—well, refer to my previous statement. Just call. If you are a GM and you did not call about Cam Newton for some role in your quarterback room this year, you are no longer allowed to use the “no stone unturned” cliché that GMs love using. Belichick called. If it doesn’t work out, he can cut his losses. If Newton succeeds, the Patriots can work out a long-term deal or franchise-tag him in the short term. They can also let Newton walk in free agency and grab a compensatory pick, a favorite tactic of Belichick’s.
None of this will be easy. Newton has battled shoulder and Lisfranc injuries in recent years and his health is the biggest question in all of this. According to Pro Football Focus’s Seth Galina, Newton’s passing grade hasn’t approached the levels of his 2015 MVP season in the ensuing years. His success throwing downfield has declined significantly in the same time frame.
But his ability to use his arm and his legs makes him a unique talent worth building an offense around. One of my pet theories about the 2020 season is that it will be the season of Occam’s razor—the best solution will be the simplest one. Due to the uncertainties and limitations imposed by the coronavirus, it is not a season for overcomplicating things, and the teams with a ton of great players or extraordinarily smart coaches will have even more of an advantage than usual. There are countless ways to build a good football team, but without any offseason practice, or rookie minicamp, or in-person meetings, there are probably fewer paths to building a good team than in normal years. Showing up as the better team will matter more. This is a long way of saying that in 2018, the last time he played anywhere near full health, Newton, on non-option runs, picked up a first down an astounding 50 percent of the time, according to PFF, and 35 percent of the time on all runs. That is a very good player to have on your football team.
An NFL executive told The Athletic’s Mike Sando that he thinks Newton is healthy and a top-10 quarterback. However, with the possibility of fewer preseason games and a modified training camp, how much we’ll know of Newton’s health before Week 1 is an open question.
So, too, is what offense the Patriots will run. I am intrigued by a report from Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer that said the Patriots had interest in Lamar Jackson in the 2018 draft (the Pats picked one spot ahead of Jackson’s selection) but knew they’d have to overhaul their scheme if they selected him. They didn’t opt for that route, but now can overhaul their scheme for Newton. Jackson and Newton are different players at different stages of their career, but the through line is that coaches can have a lot of fun making linebackers look silly with them at quarterback.
You should be excited for Belichick and McDaniels to build a scheme around Newton. The more interesting things Belichick gets to do on a football field, the better. Brady and Belichick innovated a lot: The 2007 Patriots were the first team to run shotgun on the majority of their plays, now a staple of NFL offenses. The same team helped reinvigorate the slot position. Whether it was using two tight ends, or nearly any other passing trend, Belichick helped make it interesting. Now he gets to draw up some running quarterback plays. This one is for football dorks.
It’s hard to know what Belichick will do without Brady. There’s very little evidence of what the Patriots look like without him: Matt Cassel started nearly a full season in 2008, while Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett each started games during Brady’s 2016 suspension. None of these players have the same skill set as Newton, so things will look different. The Cassel season, universally regarded as one of Belichick’s best coaching jobs, featured Randy Moss, who helped out by dunking on everyone down the field (they had a play called “Randy” that sounds simple and is). Newton won’t have a Moss to help him; instead, he’ll have a pretty mediocre group of skill position players, the ones that held Brady back last year.
Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison once told me, in regard to game-planning with Cassel as the starter, “Bill sees stuff in people that no one sees and even things that people don’t see in themselves.” I’m intrigued to see what Belichick and McDaniels come up with that even Newton has not already done. Again, they’ve thought about doing different stuff at quarterback: The Patriots signed Tim Tebow for a brief spell in 2013; McDaniels had drafted and coached him when he was head coach of the Broncos. But having the greatest quarterback of all time diminishes the need for experimentation at the position. That is why, if it all works out, this will be fun.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Dan Mullen, the Florida Gators coach, about a visit McDaniels made to Gainesville in 2005, when Mullen was the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer. The Patriots wanted to know about the spread offense the Gators staff had just used with great success with Alex Smith at the University of Utah. The Patriots learned a lot about that offense. “It’s us trying to figure out if we can’t steal something and help our team along the way,” McDaniels told me. The Patriots incorporated some of those elements in 2007, leading to one of the best offenses of all time, but kept out, obviously, the running portion because Brady is not much of a runner, to put it nicely. That same year, Mullen and Meyer were recruiting an Atlanta high school star who fit their system perfectly. His name was Cam Newton.