Here is a set of facts about Cam Newton should you find yourself arguing with a Twitter egg, or, if you own an NFL team, your general manager. There are 884 players who are making more money than Cam Newton this season. He was reportedly open to a backup role with the right team in May. When he agreed to terms with the Patriots in late June, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, they were the only team to offer him a contract, and only one other team, Cleveland, even had a conversation with him. The majority of the arguments as to why Newton wouldn’t work for a team—be them financial, health-related, or concerns about his role—are purely hypothetical. Since 29 teams never called after Carolina cut the quarterback in March, they simply don’t know. The NFL should be embarrassed that Cam Newton is a Patriot.
It has been only two weeks, which is not exactly enough time for a victory lap or a declaration that Newton’s success will last forever, or even through the end of this season. What it is time for, however, is a reckoning with how Newton-to-the-Patriots happened. His contract—$1.1 million, plus incentives—has basically already paid for itself for the 1-1 Patriots. And yes, if it weren’t obvious when he was languishing as a free agent in the summer, Newton provides value for a team. He accounted for 95 percent of the Patriots’ yardage in Week 2 against Seattle. He leads the NFL in positively graded plays for a quarterback through two weeks. He leads the NFL in completions 10 or more yards down the field, according to Pro Football Focus. Newton signed with an NFL team one month after Joe Flacco.
This episode exposed two things about the NFL: First, a league obsessed with talking about “leaving no stone unturned” did almost no stone-turning when a former MVP was on the open market. Second, a supposedly risk-averse league did not realize that signing a former MVP for a near-minimum salary, or even calling him, was actually the risk-averse move. There was no downside. Newton is not the type of player who can single-handedly torpedo a locker room. (Separately, it is monumentally hard for one football player to have an outsize impact on any locker room, even if he tried.) The only downside for the Patriots is if Newton doesn’t work out and everyone shakes hands and goes their separate ways after this year. The best-case scenario is Newton is so good the Patriots lock him up to a long-term deal. Somewhere between these two scenarios would be using the franchise tag on Newton, or tagging and trading him.
The one thing I keep coming back to as it relates to Newton is that, if you take the arguments against pursuing him at face value, it makes NFL teams look like fragile messes that are incapable of handling the slightest of obstacles. The two arguments most commonly made against bringing Newton in were that his presence would hinder young quarterbacks already on the roster or, an even more specious argument, that it would be hard to manage his presence in the locker room, especially if veterans lobbied for him to start. Let’s start here: If you have a quarterback whose career would tank by the mere presence of a good veteran quarterback, it’s best to discover that as soon as possible, because it’s extremely bad news for your team and the quarterback. Likewise, if you’re fearful your coach cannot handle Newton in the locker room, you should be more skeptical about the coach than the player. The NFL spends so much time thinking about red flags for players that it never notices red flags for franchises.
Newton has been clear that he didn’t prioritize money in his negotiation, but his salary is a symptom of the total lack of interest the league had in him: $1.1 million is a rounding error for NFL teams. There are dozens of players who account for more than that in dead money, meaning they don’t even play for a team and count for more against its salary cap. There are so many of these players that singling out any of them seems fruitless. But here’s one: The Panthers are paying $2 million in dead money for a former quarterback. His name is Cam Newton.
Newton’s salary with the Patriots could climb to $7.5 million based on incentives that include reaching the playoffs and making the All-Pro team, plus incentives tied to appearances and playing time. If the Patriots are forced to pay out $7.5 million total for a veteran All-Pro playoff quarterback who played every game, they’d still be saving roughly $30 million based on the current market rate for the position.
In the COVID-19 offseason, Newton couldn’t work out for teams, so questions about his health went unanswered. Newton, of course, battled shoulder and foot injuries the past two years, the latter of which limited him to two games last season. This particular obstacle—that players couldn’t freely fly around the country, working out and meeting with teams’ medical staff—didn’t stop, say, the Jets from signing Flacco. Flacco, who had offseason neck surgery, didn’t participate in a full practice until this week and isn’t expected to be active and available to back up Sam Darnold until Week 4. Flacco, incidentally, is making a smidge more than Newton in 2020. Newton is clearly better than any team’s veteran backup. He’s also not coached by Adam Gase. Perhaps Newton would only have taken so little money to play for the Patriots. Again, this is all deeply hypothetical since no one else bothered to call and find out.
Instead, the league let Belichick have a bargain. This is like giving Shakespeare a pen or Jimmy Butler something to be angry about: just sit back and wait for greatness to unfold.
There is something perfect about Newton being in New England. Belichick and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are not doing anything surprising—they are playing to Newton’s wide variety of strengths. Newton has played in what amounts to two completely different games through two weeks. According to Next Gen Stats, he threw the ball 10 or more yards downfield 19 times on Sunday against Seattle, completing 15 of those passes. A week before, against Miami, he completed three of four such attempts. His average air yards per attempt against Seattle was 7.9, up from 5.2 against Miami. The common thread through both games is that Newton keeps running. He is on pace—though it’s obviously a small sample size—for the most runs by a quarterback in history. Belichick believes in letting a player do what he’s capable of, not focusing on what he can’t do; through two weeks, the answer is that Newton can do everything. This should not come as much of a surprise: I’ve written before about how enamored Belichick and McDaniels were of Urban Meyer’s Florida offenses. Newton was being recruited at the exact same time Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen and McDaniels were meeting. You cannot replace Tom Brady, so the Patriots have tried something different with Newton, exactly as they should.
There are 15 weeks left in the NFL season, and again, the only conclusion to draw so far is that so many teams screwed up. Newton looks good and so do the Patriots, and they have a test on Sunday against the 2-0 Raiders. Newton’s success is another example of a league that prioritizes the quarterback position above all else, yet it’s also a reminder that oftentimes teams work against their own self-interest when trying to find one. No one should be fired for not calling Cam Newton, but they should be asking themselves why they didn’t, because the excuses simply aren’t good enough. Cam Newton is a Patriot; 29 teams didn’t call and now they’ve got to deal with him.