The news of Cam Newton’s release from the Patriots was shocking, but it didn’t catch anyone off guard. It seemed most people had a take or a theory ready about why head coach Bill Belichick cut the quarterback he insisted was his starter for most of the offseason and had at the top of his depth chart all preseason. The two most widely held theories had little to do with football.
Newton’s vaccination status was the most popular of the two. Just last week, Newton missed five days of training camp practices after a “misunderstanding” led to a violation of the NFL’s testing protocols. The sequence of events suggested that Newton was not vaccinated against COVID-19; unvaccinated players are subject to stricter protocols and quarantines should they be exposed to the virus. Newton also missed time last season after a bout with the coronavirus, which coincided with a downward spiral for the Patriots offense. All in all, it would have been understandable if Belichick didn’t want to take any chances by having an unvaccinated starter at the most important position on the roster. But in a Wednesday press conference, Belichick said that Newton’s vaccination status had nothing to do with the team’s decision. “No, we have other players on the team who aren’t vaccinated,” Belichick said.
If we take the Pats coach at his word, then the most logical explanation for the team cutting ties with Newton is his presence in the locker room. By all accounts, the 2015 NFL MVP instantly took on a leadership role when he arrived in New England last season, which was hardly a surprise. Players have gravitated toward Newton throughout his career. But now that the Patriots have elevated rookie quarterback Mac Jones to the top of the depth chart, it made very little sense to have a big personality like Newton around, which could possibly undermine Jones’s status as the most important player on the team.
While those two theories make a lot of off-field sense, from an on-field perspective, cutting Newton wasn’t a logical move. Assuming he doesn’t land a starting job elsewhere, Newton will instantly become the league’s best backup QB the moment he signs with his next team. Sure, he didn’t play great football in 2020—few Patriots players did—but even that hobbled version of the former All-Pro was still clearly one of the 32 best quarterbacks in the league. And now that he’s coming off an impressive preseason in which he looked like a throwback version of himself, it would seem he’s in prime position to eventually get another shot at starting in the league.
This offseason, the now-jobless quarterback boasted he was healthy for the first time since he suffered a shoulder injury late in 2016. It’s easy to write that off as best-shape-of-my-life offseason hype, but Newton’s preseason tape corroborates the claim. He looked spry in the pocket, and it seemed like he made more downfield throws in three August games than he had in all of 2020.
Newton’s final throw in New England was probably the best of his time there. It went into the box score as an interception, but this pass—a 40-yard bomb splitting the two safeties in New York’s Tampa 2 defense—was a reminder of Cam’s peak in Carolina.
That one play should answer any questions about the health of his shoulder. The Newton we saw from 2018 to 2020 didn’t have that in him. There aren’t many quarterbacks in the league who do.
If Newton’s arm is indeed back to where it was before the shoulder injury, then the biggest difference between this version of him and the one who led the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance after the 2015 season is probably his speed. His 40 time has slowed down by a 10th or two, but he’s still a major threat on the ground who will elevate any run game you drop him into. Last season, Lamar Jackson was the only quarterback who ran for more yards on designed carries, and Newton led all QBs with a dozen rushing touchdowns, per Pro Football Focus.
The 32-year-old’s waning athleticism has taken a toll on his scrambling ability. But Newton was never that big of a scrambler to begin with—at least compared to other mobile quarterbacks around the league. He prefers to hang in the pocket as long as possible and wait for receivers to get open downfield. Last season, 25 quarterbacks attempted more passes outside the pocket than Newton did, per Sports Info Solutions, and the group ahead of him included names like Ben Roethlisberger, Kirk Cousins, and even Tom Brady. Heading into 2020, only four quarterbacks had thrown a higher percentage of their passes from the pocket since 2016, according to Next Gen Stats: Carson Palmer, Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Brady. Newton can move better than any of those passers; but inside the pocket, he’s a bit of a statue.
In that way, Newton isn’t your typical dual threat quarterback. Whereas other mobile quarterbacks pick up most of their rush yards on called pass plays, his rushing production comes on designed runs. For example: Russell Wilson and Newton have rushed for a similar number of yards during their careers. The Seahawks quarterback has 5,064 career rushing yards to his name; Newton is sitting at 5,610. But 76.1 percent of Wilson’s yards have come on scramble plays compared to 38.7 percent for Newton, per PFF.
Until Jackson came along in 2018, Newton was the only quarterback who also served as his team’s top option in the run game. Because of that, you almost have to compartmentalize those two facets of his game and examine them separately. As a runner, Newton revolutionized the sport and forced NFL teams to reassess how they evaluate quarterbacks. But as a passer, the 2011 first overall pick is really more of a throwback. He’s tough as hell in the pocket; he’s willing to stand in there and take a shot if it allows him to push the ball further downfield; and while he hasn’t always been an efficient passer, his willingness to hunt big plays has helped mitigate his accuracy issues. Newton is football’s version of a volume shooter—the NFL’s Allen Iverson, if you will.
If you want a football comparison, here’s one you probably haven’t heard before: Newton as this generation’s John Elway—at least in terms of talent and skill set. Had the Broncos legend played in the 21st century, he would have been running zone read and QB power just like Newton. Elway had the size and athleticism to do it, but NFL offenses were’t running option concepts back in the ’80s. So Elway was strictly used as a passer, and the results were initially not very good. The former no. 1 pick had no problem filling up a highlight reel with his big arm, but he wasn’t overly efficient—even by 1980s standards. Looking just at the first four years of his career, Elway’s closest statistical comps would be Blake Bortles, Jay Cutler, and Josh Freeman, according to Pro Football Reference.
John Elway Early Career Stats (1983-1987)
But Elway’s and Newton’s developments followed a similar path. Their first great passing seasons came in Year 5, and both resulted in MVP awards. Elway was 27 when he won his only MVP. Newton was 26. For both, those breakout years were followed by a few down seasons, and that’s where the two paths diverge. After being used as a red-zone battering ram for years by Carolina, Newton’s body started to fail him. Elway didn’t have that problem. He was able to play through that late-20s/early-30s window in which many franchise quarterbacks make the leap mentally.
Newton showed signs of taking that next step during the 2018 season, when the Panthers finally surrounded him with a good supporting cast. He was on pace to set career highs in basically every major passing category over the first half of that season, and he even got some early MVP buzz. But in a Thursday night game against Pittsburgh, Newton took a big hit from Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, which seemed to aggravate the shoulder injury he had suffered two years earlier. His play fell off noticeably after that, and he was deactivated as soon as the Panthers were eliminated from playoff contention. Newton had surgery on his throwing shoulder that following offseason, and we haven’t seen a long stretch of effective football from him since.
It wasn’t until Elway’s age-33 season that he really came into his own as a passer. That’s when we saw a significant uptick in his efficiency, and he consistently made his way to the top of the NFL’s statistical leaderboards. Through his first nine seasons, Elway finished in the top 10 in DVOA just twice. He finished in the top 10 in five out of his last six seasons. Mike Shanahan’s return to Denver in 1995—he had twice served as Elway’s offensive coordinator, but this time he entered as head coach—helped push the Broncos quarterback even further. After years of doing the heavy lifting for an underwhelming Denver roster, Elway finally had a good support system around him. He had more weapons to work with, and Shanahan’s scheme didn’t ask too much of the quarterback. The Broncos would go on to win back-to-back Super Bowls in Elway’s final two seasons, completely rewriting what had been considered a somewhat disappointing career up until that point.
Newton is just 32, a year younger than Elway was when he started his late-career turnaround. If the free-agent quarterback can stay healthy, and maybe find a Shanahan of his own, there’s still plenty of time for a resurgence. But whether that happens could be the difference between him being remembered as the quarterback who paved a way for other dual threat QBs and claiming some glory for himself in what could be the third and final act of his career.