Here’s an only-in-2020 sentence for you: Sunday night, Patriots defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty were recording their podcast Double Coverage while quarantined in their homes when news broke that New England was signing Cam Newton to a one-year deal.
“I’m happy to not play against him,” Devin McCourty said. “He always kills us.”
Newton is a Patriot, Tom Brady is a Buccaneer, and these are strange times indeed. As Devin McCourty said, Newton has played astonishingly well against the Patriots, which makes him similar to players New England has signed in the past. By Bill Belichick’s logic, if you can’t beat them, sign them.
The Patriots haven’t beaten Newton. He’s 2-0 against New England with 525 passing yards, 106 rushing yards, six passing touchdowns, and one interception in those games. His passer rating (128.2) and yards per attempt (9.2) are better against the Patriots than against any other opponent. Newton’s 72 percent completion rate against Belichick’s defenses is second only to his mark against the Steelers, and his 7.1 yards per carry are topped only by performances against the Texans and Dolphins. Those two games he’s played against the Patriots—one in 2013, the other in 2017—are two of the best of his career. It should be noted when considering these figures that the Patriots are, you know, usually good.
That kind of thing makes an impression. Some quarterbacks who have never beaten the Patriots include Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, and Carson Palmer. Others with losing records against Belichick’s Pats are Patrick Mahomes (1-2), Peyton Manning (8-12), Aaron Rodgers (1-2), Philip Rivers (1-8), Ben Roethlisberger (4-9), and Deshaun Watson (1-2). Of all likely starters in the NFL this season, only Nick Foles (1-0), Lamar Jackson (1-0), and Newton have played the Patriots and never lost.
Even if it weren’t rare for New England to struggle against a quarterback like they have against Newton, those two Patriots-Panthers games would be hard to forget. Belichick probably ranks Newton’s 2013 performance, a 24-20 Carolina win on Monday Night Football, somewhere around his tenure as Jets head coach on his list of favorite things to reminisce about. Newton scored three touchdowns in that game and, on one scramble in the third quarter, juked six different defenders while covering about 70 yards to gain 14 on a crucial third-and-7. This was the game where Steve Smith told Aqib Talib to “ice up, son,” in his postgame interview.
When they were set to meet again in 2017, Belichick made it clear Newton had dazzled him.
“I think when you’re talking about mobile quarterbacks, guys that are tough to handle, tackle, can throw, run, make good decisions—I mean, I would put Newton at the top of the list,” Belichick said then. “He makes good decisions, he can run, he’s strong, he’s hard to tackle. He can do a lot of different things, beat you in a lot of different ways. We saw that in the game down there in ’13, so I would put him at the top of the list. Not saying the other guys aren’t a problem, because they are, but he’s public enemy no. 1.”
Now, asking Belichick about a player he’s game-planning for can be like asking a salesperson if you look good in a dress you’re trying on. Not long after he gushed over Newton, Belichick called Bryce Petty “impressive.” Newton backed Belichick up, though, throwing for 316 yards and three touchdowns while adding 44 yards and another score on the ground in a 33-30 Panthers win. Belichick has also never signed Petty.
The best evidence that Belichick meant what he said came Sunday night when the Patriots signed Newton. The price was right and the need was there, but the fact that Belichick is willing to take reps away from Jarrett Stidham means he wants to see whether Newton can recapture some of his old magic, even if he’s not the same player he was when they met in 2013 and 2017. In that sense, signing Newton is a continuation of a longstanding trend. Under Belichick, the Patriots have loved to sign players whom they struggled playing against.
Belichick watched Corey Dillon rush for 79 yards against his defense in 2000, then 104 in 2001, then traded for him when he got the chance in 2004. Wes Welker had a couple notable games against the Patriots when he was with the Dolphins, and he tormented New England with his quickness in a nine-catch, 77-yard game the year before Belichick traded for him in 2007. Chad Johnson’s last game against New England before Belichick traded for him was his 12-catch, 159-yard game on opening day in 2010, and Johnson had at least 53 receiving yards in each game against the Patriots before that.
Outside of his rookie year, Darrelle Revis held Randy Moss to 22-, 26-, 24-, 34-, and 38-yard games when Moss’s Patriots faced Revis’s Jets. Star players don’t usually get traded within a division and Revis didn’t become a free agent until after his seventh season, so Belichick maintained his football crush from afar until Revis hit the market in 2014. When that happened, the Patriots signed him within hours.
There are more examples. Last offseason, Belichick traded for Michael Bennett, who’d been a major problem for the Patriots offense in Super Bowl XLIX when the defensive end was with the Seahawks. Bennett merited his own scene in Do Your Job, the NFL Films documentary about the Patriots’ preparation for that game. In that scene, Patriots director of football research Ernie Adams explains that the offense had three main priorities in that game.
“No. 1, offensively, we had to block a fabulous player, Bennett, no. 72,” Adams says. “Truth is, we didn’t really block him all day, Tom just did a great job getting rid of the ball.”
The next shot is footage of then-tight ends coach Brian Daboll talking to players on the sideline during the game.
“The only guy that’s giving us any trouble is 72,” Daboll yells.
Then, there’s a clip of Bennett getting a hit on Brady, which he did four times in that game.
“Good hit, 72,” Brady says.
Bennett, of course, did not go on to a spectacular Patriots career. The Patriots played more 3-4 defense than anticipated last season and Bennett’s role was minimized. Last October, after what he termed a “philosophical disagreement” with defensive line coach Bret Bielema, Bennett was suspended for a week by the team and ultimately traded to the Cowboys. Johnson didn’t work out either, while Revis, Welker, and Dillon were great as Patriots. It’s a mixed bag. As Rex Ryan surely tells himself in the mirror each morning, there’s more to life than beating New England.
Belichick hates to lose, and he especially hates to see his defense carved up. He remembers the players who put him through that.
Part of this particular Patriots practice is more about workflow than any particular trait they look for in players. The head coach in New England also has final say on personnel matters, which means his days are pretty full. Belichick grinds plenty of tape, but sometimes the best audience a player can get with him is the one that happens live on Sundays. If there’s anything Belichick loves more than coaching, it’s scouting while he’s coaching.
Newton is a Patriot, Brady is a Buccaneer, and the landscape of the AFC East changed overnight. The constant is Belichick, rooting out value and adding a player he could never figure out how to play against. Same as ever.