By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Remember, if you can, all the way back to the final days of June, when the Patriots signed Cam Newton out of nowhere. You’ll surely recall that all the way back in those days, the response to this surprise signing was almost universal:
Nothing will be handed to him there. He’ll have to earn playing time. Fitting in under Bill Belichick won’t be easy. Replacing Tom Brady is a tall task. Who knows if he can handle it? He might get cut. Bill might trade him. A roster spot is no guarantee.
We ultimately won’t be able to answer a lot of those questions with the 31-year-old quarterback until the Patriots actually start playing some football games. But now, after learning the development that Newton not only earned the starting QB job but also got voted a team captain, we must all see that it is quite clear that Newton has aced his first test in Foxboro.
Obviously, nobody is handing out Lombardis for the work done in July and August. But in Foxboro, that’s the time of year when the groundwork for a championship-caliber season is laid. And what Newton has done in a short time has clearly impressed his teammates and coaches.
That may be dismissed by some, considering — again — that showing up on Sundays matters a whole lot more. Fair enough. Yet it is important to note that this moment never was a given for Newton.
Though it may not have ever felt like a “real” quarterback competition in Foxboro, the team did give Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer every chance to prove to be more worthy of the Week 1 job than Newton. The “competition” part never really materialized though, because neither backup has comparable talent to the No. 1 overall pick from 2011.
Realistically, the only chance Stidham or Hoyer had would have come about if Newton was injured. He wasn’t, so it was no contest.
But the second part of Thursday’s development is in many ways much more important.
It’s easy to forget now … but stepping into the spot occupied by Tom Brady for 20 years is a rather large detail. Tackling that challenge is not for everyone, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
From day one, Newton has been unafraid — aggressively so — of that challenge. And he’s seemingly not spent a single ounce of energy trying to be Tom Brady.
Instead, he’s shown up to work every day as Cam Newton, providing energy and encouragement in the stretching lines, in the huddle, in the workout rooms, on Webex calls and all over the practice field. His impression on the team was evident from the day he arrived, to the point where his teammates felt comfortable naming him as one of their leaders before he could even play a single live snap in a game.
Even if this were the Cleveland Browns, that would be impressive. But doing that for the New England Patriots, with Bill Belichick as the coach, just months after Tom Brady left town? Its significance shouldn’t go understated.
In speaking to the media recently, Newton shared some insight on exactly how and why he goes about his business the way he does.
“It’s extremely important [to bring energy to the practice field], especially for me as a person,” Newton said. “Anybody who knows me knows that it’s all about the vibe that you have to set and you curate, and in essence, we want to change that word ‘vibe.’ It more or less becomes the standard. Walking into this locker room, it’s been such a good energy here that I just want to make sure that I do my part. And even though we may have a lackluster day offensively, it’s just my job as one of the default leaders in my position to make sure that everybody knows we have to become better. We have to make sure we hold each other accountable. And that’s all I’m trying to do each and every day.”
He continued: “So for me, no matter if it’s coming up with a handshake, no matter if it’s just jumping up and down, no matter if it’s getting in somebody’s face to tell them a joke — those things may come off as me getting other people focused and ready, but more or less, it’s just me holding myself accountable more than anything else. Because I go by a code and stick to the code of if you say something to somebody, you’d better make sure that you’re holding yourself in check, as well. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Newton’s leadership thus far has been natural rather than forced.
“Well, that’s not something that you try to do. It just has to happen naturally,” Newton said of establishing himself as a leader on the field and in the locker room. “And since day one, there’s been probably some things that I would probably have stereotyped [about the Patriots] from the outside looking in, and then people probably did it vice versa with me, stereotyping the person who I am from how the media may portray certain things. But at the end of the day, you cannot be negated off of the person you really are. That’s what just happens. I think with our position that I play, not many positions in sports [make you] a default leader, and quarterback is ideally one of those positions. So with that being said, you have to make sure that you hold yourself accountable — higher than a normal person. You want to be more of the leader that leads more by example than anything else.”
Words are, obviously, just words. But based on Belichick’s glowing recommendation this week and the stamp of approval from teammates and the rest of the coaching staff, Newton’s backed everything up by showing up early, putting in the work, and seamlessly integrating himself into a new environment.
Newton’s history helped prepare him for this, of course. After fizzling out at Florida, he got himself back into the national conversation by leading Blinn College to a national championship, one season before leading Auburn to an undefeated national championship season, thus launching himself to the No. 1 spot in the NFL draft. He steadily ascended to 2015, when he was the league MVP and nearly led the Panthers to an undefeated regular season.
Though his Super Bowl performance was not what it needed to be, Newton’s climb from leaving Florida under inauspicious circumstances to joining the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the world was the rarest of rare success stories.
Then came the injuries, which set him up for this potential comeback. Whether he completes it will be determined from September through January, and then from January into February. Staying healthy and playing quarterback at an elite level in the NFL is a whole lot harder than working hard in training camp. We all understand that.
But for now, the only assessment we have of Newton’s first two months under employment of the Patriots is that he’s checked every box, exceeded expectations, and provided a whole lot of hope inside and outside the locker room that life after Tom Brady will not be so bad.