Cam Newton is back, happy, and—hopefully—healthy. For the casual football fan, seeing his trademark smile, live arm, and powerful running is an experience many have long missed; the last we’d seen of Newton was Week 2 last season, and the former MVP wasn’t himself. His form was enough to deter 31 teams from pursuing him this offseason and he wound up with the Patriots in late June on a dirt-cheap, one-year deal worth $1.05 million in base salary and potentially up to $7.5 million in incentives. That was considered a bargain then. One game in, it still very much is. When Newton strolled into Gillette Stadium sporting a bright, banana-colored suit, it was a pinch-me moment: Somehow, the NFL allowed Newton to end up on Bill Belichick’s team.
It’s surreal, but the Newton Era is underway in New England. The Ringer has spoken about Newton’s career and written about his impact on the Patriots’ offense and culture ad nauseam. Newton’s debut performance has already proved that all discourse surrounding New England’s seismic transition from Tom Brady to Newton was warranted. Newton led the Patriots offense with 15 carries for 75 yards and two touchdowns (all team highs), pummeling the Dolphins in a 21-11 win. New England’s identity Sunday revolved around the run game, as it rushed 42 times for 217 yards and three scores.
“It was relatively picking up right where I remember the game to be, so to speak,” Newton told reporters afterward. “I think it was just a feeling process for me and my coaches to understand who they have and what I have.”
Newton, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound former no. 1 pick, accesses a special offensive dimension that even Brady couldn’t access during his 20-year tenure: the ability to effectively run the ball with the quarterback. It made the difference against Miami, as Newton scored two rushing touchdowns and converted two third downs and one fourth down with his legs. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up 13 designed QB carries for Newton on Sunday. It marked the second most of Newton’s career, highlighting New England’s capability of relying on its quarterback to create with his legs.
That mentality counters everything we’ve known about the Patriots across the past 20 years. Brady’s highest single-game rushing total was a 31-yard output against the Jaguars in 2006—the lone time Brady ever amassed more than 28 yards in a contest. Newton can top that in his sleep. His 75 rushing yards on Sunday were the most by a Patriots signal-caller since Steve Grogan rushed for 81 yards against the Bills in 1977. Newton shrugged off a question about the designed runs and his high usage on Sunday. “I just wanted to win,” he said.
Mission accomplished. Newton’s rushing ability allowed the Patriots to be creative with their offense, with Newton drawing out option carries and setting up running backs to benefit from the threat he posed to the Dolphins defense. Sony Michel registered 10 carries for 37 yards and one touchdown; Rex Burkhead logged seven carries for 32 yards; J.J. Taylor rushed four times for 28 yards; James White managed five carries for 22 yards. Even receiver Julian Edelman benefited from Newton’s presence, notching a 23-yard carry after receiving the ball following a pre-snap motion.
“He’s a baller. He brings energy,” Edelman told CBS when asked about Newton. “No. 1 made some incredible plays and we’re going to need that from him all year.”
In addition to Newton’s rushing ability, he also looked effective as a passer. Newton’s accuracy on timing routes and slants looked particularly superb, and he finished 15-for-19 with 155 yards. Edelman snagged five receptions for 57 yards and N’Keal Harry recorded a career-high five catches for 39 yards. Newton wasn’t extraordinary, but he looked comfortable throwing the ball in McDaniels’s offense, an encouraging development for an offense that is low on skill talent.
The questions for New England and Newton is whether he can build off this level of play and whether he can remain healthy. Regarding the latter, Newton was sacked twice and caught by the CBS broadcast holding the back of his leg following the game. He shrugged off any concern shortly after, saying, “I’m great. Everything’s good, trust.” Newton’s health will determine whether the Patriots will accomplish any goals laid out for this season. Even if their defense—which picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick three times and sacked him once—is one of the league’s most dominant units again, New England can only go as far as Superman can carry them. As strange a sight as it is.
“This is the new normal,” Newton said. “I think it’s time for everybody, including myself, to realize this is what it’s like. I think it hit me full circle today for me to just kinda realize I’m a New England Patriot. I’m gonna embrace this whole moment.”