By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You can say this about Cam Newton: There just aren’t many folks who watch him play football without feeling something. For some people, it’s pure love. For others, it’s the exact opposite.
Hey — that kind of sounds like the guy he’ll be replacing in Foxboro, doesn’t it?
Bill Belichick and the Patriots obviously don’t make football decisions while considering the thoughts and feelings of fans. Belichick does not have an “entertainment factor” on his list of desirable attributes among available players. That much is obvious. Still, going from a “Jarrett Stidham running a nuts-and-bolts, run-heavy, basic-ass offense” in 2020 to “Cameron Freaking Newton” is a nice bonus to what transpired on Sunday evening.
Out goes Tom Brady. In comes Cam Newton. From a pure entertainment standpoint, that’s not a bad trade.
Of course, of course, OF COURSE, there is simply no guarantee that Cameron Freaking Newton will be showing up in Foxboro, and that will be what affects the more important football factor to this somewhat shocking news. His foot injury was a major problem last year, as was the shoulder injury that dogged him for the two years prior. It’s possible that the 31-year-old’s best days are behind him. That’s precisely why the man who was MVP of the entire league just five seasons ago was cut loose by the franchise that selected him first overall and made him the face of their entire franchise for nine years. It’s also why he was sitting unemployed as the calendar neared the month of July.
But it is the height of Newton’s career that makes this addition so captivating. Because even Jarrett Stidham’s immediate family would have to admit that Stidham’s ceiling is simply nowhere near Newton’s ceiling. Few quarterbacks on earth have ever been as good as Newton was at his peak.
Consider that MVP season back in 2015. Newton and the Panthers went 15-1, and it’s still a bit shocking that they didn’t go 16-0. (After surviving an infamous slugfest against the Giants, they lost to the 7-7 Falcons in Week 16. Because football is weird.) Newton threw for 3,837 yards that year, with 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also ran for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
It was a dominant show of athleticism for Newton, who earned 48 of 50 MVP votes. Carson Palmer threw for 4,671 yards and 35 TDs with 11 INTs for the 13-3 Cardinals, which would have been MVP-caliber stuff any other year; he received one vote. Tom Brady, the reigning Super Bowl champ, threw for 4,770 yards with a league-leading 36 touchdowns and just seven interceptions for the 12-4 Patriots; he likewise received just one vote.
In the playoffs, Newton was good against the Seahawks, and he was decent against the Cardinals, and he was pretty bad against the Broncos. He also decided not to jump on a loose ball, and then he was a wee bit snippy in his postgame press conference, and those two moments kind of came to tell the whole story of his 2015 season for many people.
His numbers nosedived in 2016, when his TDs went from 35 to 19 and his INTs jumped from 10 to 14. He was also essentially half the rushing threat than he was the year prior.
What goes mostly overlooked in the Newton story is that he decently rebounded in 2017 and 2018. In those two years, despite a shoulder injury that severely hampered his arm strength and also cost him two games, he threw 46 touchdowns with 29 interceptions, while rushing for 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns, with a 5.2-yard average. The 2017 season was his best rushing year since his rookie season, as he ran for 754 yards and six touchdowns, ranking 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards and 19th in rushing yards. He had more rushing yards in fewer attempts than Adrian Peterson, Derrick Henry, Jonathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, Tevin Coleman, Joe Mixon, Jerick McKinnon, and five other running backs.
He was good!
Alas, the shoulder bugged him throughout 2018, which forced him to sit out the final two games. He underwent surgery on the shoulder for the second straight offseason.
Looking to rebound in 2019, he suffered a Lisfranc injury during a preseason game against the Patriots that was never able to heal. He tried to play despite the issue, but he made it through just two ineffective games before causing him to miss games. Eventually, he was placed on IR, and eventually, he underwent surgery.
And eventually, the Panthers released him.
All of that brought us to this offseason, the most unique offseason in the history of the NFL. With facilities closed all spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, Newton lacked the opportunity to visit teams and show that he’s recovered from his December surgery. He then had to watch as five teams drafted quarterbacks in the first two rounds of the draft, with at least three of those QBs selected with the intention of becoming franchise QBs. Newton also had to watch as Teddy Bridgewater took his place in Carolina, with free agents Tom Brady and Philip Rivers getting new jobs. Ryan Tannehill and Drew Brees kept their jobs. Jameis Winston got a job. Even Joe Flacco and Marcus Mariota got contracts.
All the while, the 2015 league MVP remained without a job at the age of 30. Kicked to the curb by the team that embraced him for a decade, and passed over by the entirety of the NFL.
And isn’t that precisely where you’d expect Bill Belichick to creep into the picture?
The upside with Newton is obvious. This play from 2013 likely still gives Belichick cold sweats at night.
(Newton owns the rare distinction of being undefeated against Belichick’s Patriots, going 2-0 while throwing for six touchdowns with one interception, while also rushing for 106 yards and another score.)
While the injury concerns could very well mean that Newton will never again reach the height of his athletic ability, a quick scroll through his Instagram feed will reveal two things: a very annoying font choice, and a very fit man.
Cam Newton has been a star his entire life. He was a five-star recruit when he joined the University of Florida program, a tenure which obviously ended negatively with the stolen laptop. He put in his work at Blinn College, winning a junior college national championship and earning an offer at Auburn to redeem himself at the Division I level. He responded with a Heisman-winning, national championship-winning season.
That is what Belichick is hoping to get out of Newton in 2020: Redemption Story, Part 2. It’s also what Newton himself is hoping to accomplish.
Newton would have obviously preferred to find a team that was willing to put aside the injury and performance questions and dedicate franchise-level money to him. That offer, though, never came.
And there was Belichick, standing with no cap space to speak of but with plenty of wiggle room in the form of “Not Likely To Be Earned” incentives. (It’s very easy to add NLTBE incentives to the contract of a quarterback who played just two games last season. The Patriots could have marks of 573 passing yards and one single passing touchdown trigger a lot of money for Newton, money that won’t count against the Patriots’ cap until the 2021 season.)
The questions Belichick likely had for Newton were these: Do you want to prove that you’re still an MVP? And do you want to step into a role left vacant by the greatest of all time?
Newton said yes, which should tell you everything you need to know about his state of mind as he enters the make-or-break moment of his football career.
Now we’ll all get to watch and see whether he’s actually capable of doing it.
Will it work? Gosh, who knows? Nobody can. But we do know this: It’s going to be endlessly fascinating, and the tale of the 2020 Patriots undeniably got a whole lot more interesting.