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Cam Newton and Russell Wilson Are a Window Into Understanding the NFL in 2020

Different teams had different challenges in preparing for this season. The Patriots’ and Seahawks’ Week 1 wins showed how they are better equipped than most to adapt.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first week of the NFL season always presents a mirage or six. In Week 1 of last year, the Patriots beat the Steelers and made people think they were the most dominant team in the AFC, which turned out not to be true. In Week 1 of 2018, the Buccaneers beat the Saints 48-40 and made people wonder whether New Orleans’s defense was broken, which it wasn’t. Week 1 is what happens when six months of speculation meet actual football: Snap judgments are made, only to be course-corrected throughout the season. Last year’s Patriots offense turned out to be one of the weakest of the Tom Brady era; the 2018 Saints had a great defense that peaked late in the year and barely missed the Super Bowl while the Bucs finished 5-11.

This year’s early results are potentially more deceptive than usual. Week 1 evaluations in the media tend to be faulty because of how little we’ve seen teams in live action. That’s especially true in 2020 because of how little players and coaches have seen of each other. The coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the traditional offseason, resulting in limited practice time and meetings that took place largely in virtual settings. Without minicamps, joint practices, or a preseason, offseason changes to personnel and scheme weren’t tested and tweaked the way they would be in normal years. The Buccaneers, for example, signed Brady in March and came into Week 1 with high expectations for a talent-laden roster that appears great on paper but looked disjointed in a loss to the Saints Sunday. Miscues on offense, especially between Brady and his receivers, even surprised coach Bruce Arians, who said Monday he’d expected fewer of them.

“He looked like Tom Brady in practice all the time, so it’s kind of unusual to see that in a ball game because they didn’t do things that we didn’t get ready for. Everything they did, we thought we were ready for,” Arians said.

It may have been naive to expect Brady to be perfectly crisp in a new offense where everyone not named Rob Gronkowski is a new teammate (and even he hasn’t played an NFL game in over a year). Last month, The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia devised a “continuity score” metric that assigned teams a rating based on returning coaches, quarterbacks, and players who accounted for the most snaps in 2019. The top five ranked teams—the Chiefs, Packers, Bills, Saints, and Ravens—all won their first games. Of the five new head coaches in the NFL this year, only one, Washington’s Ron Rivera, coached his team to a Week 1 win.

Change is inevitable in the NFL, though, and a few teams looked like they’d altered themselves for the better in Week 1. Successfully making the right adjustments—whether to new coaches, players, strategies, or opponents—may be harder in 2020, but it’s an essential requirement for any contending team. Sometimes the changes are wholesale: New England didn’t sign Brady’s replacement, Cam Newton, until June, though you might not have known it watching him orchestrate the Patriots’ win over the Dolphins. Other times, the adjustment involves a slight variation on an existing idea: Take the Seahawks’ win over the Falcons and how Russell Wilson carved through Atlanta’s secondary. The Patriots had no choice but to build a new offense around Newton after Brady left for Tampa. Meanwhile, the Seahawks haven’t made many new offensive signings—they have added wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, running back Carlos Hyde, and tight end Greg Olsen—but looked like they’ve finally decided to open up the passing game for Wilson.

Continuity may be the first lesson of Week 1 but the Seahawks, Patriots, and Bucs offer another: Making the right kind of change for the right player and building around his best skills.

The Patriots and Seahawks play each other Week 2 in Seattle. The Seahawks will be the favorite after a 38-25 win against the Falcons in which they gained 406 yards of total offense. Wilson completed 31-of-35 passes for 322 yards and four touchdowns, one of them coming on a fourth-and-5 attempt in the third quarter when Seattle was up by two. Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, in part at Wilson’s urging, chose to keep the offense on the field and Wilson connected with DK Metcalf for a 38-yard touchdown.

“They made a good stop on third down and were all celebrating,” Wilson said after the game. “I looked at the sideline and said, ‘OK, let’s go after ’em.’ I wanted to be aggressive.”

They were—in that situation and the game as a whole. The Seahawks ran the ball just 20 times. They had the second-highest pass rate in neutral situations—when win probability is between 25 and 75 percent and at least 2:00 left in either half—of any team in Week 1. It was the offensive equivalent of going from microwave macaroni and cheese to five courses, plus wine pairings. You can look Wilson up in the Zagat restaurant guide now and, if you meet him, don’t get him started on the proper way to make a demi-glace. Yes, the Seahawks let Russ cook.

Letting Wilson be more aggressive in the passing game is a welcome development for a team that had the fourth-lowest pass rate in neutral situations last year. It’s a successful change, perhaps for the same reason Seahawks Twitter has been begging Carroll for something like this kind of pass-first offense for years: Wilson is a great deep-ball passer. Since 2016, Wilson has been the best in the NFL according to the league’s Next Gen Stats—he’s first in deep ball completions (130), touchdowns (43), yards (4,421), and expected completion percentage (10 percent above expectation). Trying new things can be risky, especially in a season with so little preparation; it’s less risky if you have one of the best quarterbacks of the last decade and emphasize what he does well.

“Russell was in total command of the game,” Carroll said.

Newton’s fit in the Patriots offense was one of the most anticipated Week 1 subplots. Bill Belichick has largely reconstituted the playbook for Newton, and the early returns are positive: Newton completed 15-of-19 passes for 155 yards and rushed 15 times for a game-high 75 yards and two touchdowns, both on designed runs. If Newton were to continue at the same rate, he’d rush for more yardage this season than Brady has in his career. Few things in the modern NFL have been as constant as Belichick and Brady. “Everything we’ve done for the last 20 years, and rightfully so, has been for Tom Brady,” Belichick said Monday. It’s notable that with limited practice time, Belichick and his staff were able to do so much with Newton in Week 1.

When I talked to Belichick and a handful of other Patriots coaches in July, they noted the difficulties of keeping the team engaged during virtual meetings. Belichick told me he’d consulted college coaches who had done spring football meetings virtually and that his staff brainstormed ideas for games to play or other ways to keep things light and focused. One method was to have offensive position groups compete against each other in a Patriots-specific version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with the board and questions created by assistant coaches proficient with Excel.

“We talked about that a lot,” Belichick said. “After about two meetings, we could see that that was going to be the new way of the world.”

No one, including the Patriots, could avoid the circumstances that made it hard to try new things this offseason. Where they seem to have gotten it right, so far, is in identifying what their offense is currently good at and not asking for much more. That edict—focus on what the players can do, not what they can’t—is one Belichick has always given to Patriots scouts. That seems to apply to this year, when Belichick and his offensive staff are tasked with figuring out what Newton is capable of, both coming off an injury-plagued season, and in an offense low on playmaking talent. It’s what Wilson can do in a more aggressive passing scheme if Carroll is more willing to let his quarterback control the game with his arm. It’s a good lesson for the 2020 season and one teams like the Bucs, whose pieces didn’t quite fit in Week 1, should be able to apply to their own rosters.

Anything from Week 1 is worth questioning because, well, it’s Week 1. Early results say continuity, as predicted, is a valuable asset this year. When change is necessary, though—whether to replace a franchise quarterback or just to get the 12s out of your mentions—adjustments that emphasize the skills of a team’s best players are never a bad place to start.