By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — The Patriots won. Cam Newton was good. Damn good, even. We’ll get to all of that.
But before we do, it’s worth it to revisit what the reality of the present would be if aaaaaaannnnnnyyyy of the NFL’s professional football teams even showed the slightest bit of interest in Cam Newton in March, April, May, or most of June. Had even one of those teams offered Newton a job with more than $1 million guaranteed … then, whoa buddy. Imagine how boring Sunday would have been!
If a football team out there felt like throwing $2.5 million at Newton in April, then the Patriots’ starter on Sunday would have been … Jarrett Stidham? Brian Hoyer? Neither option would be particularly exciting.
With Stidham in particular, after a spring where everyone couldn’t stop raving about the wondrous second-year QB, it’s a particularly grisly thought. Mostly because the coaching staff deemed Stidham to be the third-best option at quarterback on Sunday. He didn’t even dress. Ouch.
Now in a very realistic world where the Colts or the Jaguars or the Chargers or the Broncos or the Bears or the Pan– (whoops! not the Panthers … ) deemed Newton a worthy gamble, it would have been Stidham under center on Sunday. Unless he wasn’t good enough to beat out Hoyer. In which case … a double yeesh turns into a triple yeesh.
While we can give all the credit in the world to the Patriots for having a vision with Cam Newton, we also must admit that they were lucky. His availability to them in late June only existed because nobody else showed interest. As Newton put it, the phone wasn’t ringing.
Sometimes, you luck out like that — just like when every team (including your own) passes over the greatest quarterback of all time round after round after round until you finally snag him at the end of the sixth.
Now, Cam Newton is not about to embark on a six-Super Bowl run with the Patriots. At least, I do not believe that is in the cards. But he unquestionably gives this team infinitely more juice, he adds infinitely more intrigue, and he makes the Patriots infinitely more viable. (Unless you think the third-best option at QB on Sunday would somehow be better.)
So no matter which angle you’re coming at — whether you’re a die-hard fan covered in Patriots tattoos, whether you’re endlessly sad about the Tom Brady departure, whether you’re a radio host who loves to scream and cry about everything, or whether you’re just looking for a captivating football team in the area — the Cam Newton infusion is an absolute godsend.
Now, let’s jump right in to the leftover thoughts from that 21-11 Patriots win over Miami in Newton’s debut in Foxboro.
–We could start in a lot of different places, but I’d like to start with the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from inside the Dolphins’ 5-yard line in a three-point game with 6:08 left in the game. This was unequivocally the key moment of the game, and it could be the type of play call and decision that comes to define this year’s team.
A field goal from that spot would have been a chip shot, but going up by six doesn’t always provide a warm and cozy feeling of safety, particularly when the opposing offense delivered a back-breaking, game-winning touchdown drive the last time a regular-season game was played in this particular stadium.
So, before referee Adrian Hill even announced the reversal of Newton’s prior rush for a first down, Josh McDaniels sent some giant men out onto the field. With no hesitation, on fourth-and-1, the Patriots were going for it. Rookies Mike Onwenu, Justin Herron and Devin Asiasi were sent out onto the field in their NFL debuts in this critical spot. Jakob Johsnon, playing in his fifth NFL game, was out there too. Cam Newton, running the Patriots offense in a game situation for the first time, confidently called out his pre-snap signals, motioning Ryan Izzo to the left end and motioning Johnson to the left side of the backfield.
What happened next was thousands of pounds of men crashing into each other … and Newton falling forward to the goal line.
Sony Michel scored on the next play, and the Patriots were up by 10 with 5:23 left to play. Had Newton been hesitant to throw his body into heavy contact, or if any of those rookies made a mistake, then it’s a turnover on downs in a three-point game. It may not have been a Super Bowl-winning play or anything … but in the first big test of the season, the offense aced the exam.
–I asked Bill Belichick on Monday morning about that play. First, is there a certain calculus that makes going up by six points unappealing, and secondly, what those three rookies showed this summer to give him confidence that they could deliver in that critical moment. Here’s what he said:
“Those players all practiced and gave us confidence to do that, so that’s why we put them out there. We knew that, obviously that those situations are going to be critical situations: fourth-and-1’s or goal lines or whatever. You would expect that type of play to come up in a critical situation, which it did. But they’ve shown the ability to execute that in practice.”
“All those fourth-down situations, they’re all different. Certainly, being up by six is a lot better than being up by three — especially late in the game when a field goal isn’t enough for the offense, they’ve got to go in the end zone. But we just felt confident in that situation, and the players came through and executed it well. Cam gave us a good run and we ended up inside the 1-yard line. So it worked out well, but that was good execution by the players.”
–A run-heavy afternoon for Newton may not fill up the highlight reels the way that a 400-yard passing day might, but I was impressed with how in rhythm and comfortable Newton looked, considering he hasn’t played in a game since Week 2 of last season.
In particular, look at how long he held this football in the belly of Rex Burkhead before pulling it back and rushing for 10 yards and a first down. This was just Newton’s third snap of the game.
Newton’s overall numbers — 75 rushing yards and two touchdowns — were obviously good. But just as significant was that half of his real runs (excluding the kneeldown) resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.
–Going 15-of-19 through the air isn’t bad, either. He never really let it rip down the field, but he didn’t have to.
–Everybody hates the fumble out of the end zone rule. Except for me. I couldn’t tell you why. It’s objectively a bit over-the-top to not only change possession but also to give the other team 20 free yards of field position.
But, you know what? Counterpoint: Don’t fumble into the end zone. Seems simple enough.
In this particular case involving N’Keal Harry, the second-year wideout could have simply done … quite literally anything else except for separating the football from his body. Had he gone down, it’s first-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line, with a 6-foot-5 behemoth bulldozer of a quarterback under center. The six points are likely coming.
Instead, zero points. Turnover. Yuck.
–An equally concerning play from N’Keal came when he was running full speed with the football and then just got … absolutely dropped.
Harry is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. Jamal Perry is 5-foot-10, 189 pounds. Harry had been in a sprint for 10 yards. Perry was busy shedding a block and had absolutely no momentum.
And yet … dropped. Absolutely dropped.
Maybe you can chalk it up to this being Harry’s first taste of real NFL contact in a while. But you’re still going to want more than that out of him in that spot. Break a tackle there and it’s at least a first down.
–The touchback did result in a nice moment when the ever-excitable Bobby McCain partied with the field judge who made the signal for a touchback.
It’s nice to see the players and the officials getting along.
–Speaking of officials … how is this not offensive pass interference?
I mean. I like to pretend I know the rules of football sometimes, and then things like that come along and aggressively tell me, “Ha ha ha, you fool, you bozo, you moron, how dare you think you know anything. Ha ha.”
–Should this have been a penalty? Why, yes, I do believe, probably, yes.
Alas, it seems as though the Dolphins had cashed in all of their pass interference tokens in this game.
I suppose Joejuan Williams was looking back at the quarterback long enough to justify his tight coverage. But I think any team/coach would want to get that call in that situation, particularly when it results in the game-ending interception.
–We’re probably not doing the analysis of Cam Newton’s health anymore, right? Nevertheless, the zip he put on this pass to Edelman stood out:
That’s some solid zip right there, folks. Will be fun to see him finally launch one down the field … provided a receiver can go ahead and get down the field.
–I’m not going to make a huge deal out of J.J. Taylor’s debut, during which he ran for 28 yards on four carries. I will, however, show this screen shot …
… followed by THIS screen shot …
… to make the case that this young man is slippery.
–This isn’t Patriots-related at all but I have to get it down that MIKE MCCARTHY MADE ONE OF THE DUMBEST DECISIONS IN NFL HISTORY ON SUNDAY NIGHT. OK, slight overstatement. You got me. But the man bypassed a game-tying chip-shot field goal in the fourth quarter in favor of going for it on fourth-and-3 from the Rams’ 11-yard line with less than 12 minutes to play.
Not only did the attempt fail (because CeeDee Lamb ran his route a yard shy of the sticks), but it came after the Cowboys played it super conservatively on third-and-6, calling for an inside draw to Ezekiel Elliott. The third down play was an opportunity to be aggressive, but they played it conservative. The fourth-down call was just … poor. Very poor.
So, contrasting that with what the Patriots did deep in Dolphins territory on Sunday, we can say that not all fourth-down calls are created equally. Same goes for NFL head coaches.
Woof city, Mike McCarthy. Woof. City.
–The Patriots’ defense overall was pretty good, but they also played against Miami. Next week ought to be a much steeper task in Seattle, even without the fans in attendance. Russell Wilson just put up 322 passing yards and four touchdowns (plus another 29 rushing yards) as the Seahawks put 38 points on the board in a road victory in Atlanta. Granted, Matt Ryan put up 450 passing yards going the other way, so we might be in for an old-fashioned barn burner on Sunday night.
And thanks to Cam Newton … it’s going to make for some electric television.