By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — This is not about the New England Patriots.
Understand, this is about Cam Newton.
The Patriots did what they wanted to do — what they felt they had to do. The Patriots moved on to Mac Jones. It may pan out. It may not. That’s not what this is about.
This is about Cam Newton, and how it is simply a bummer that he won’t get his second chance — and his first real chance — to succeed in New England.
Obviously, Newton’s passing stats were bad last year. A full season with just eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions is about as bad as anyone’s ever seen in the modern NFL.
Yet looking solely at the stats is obscuring the much larger picture. Those who watched closely know that Newton wasn’t working with a full deck. His tight end group featured two rookies — neither of whom played very much — and Matt LaCosse. His number one receiver was, technically speaking, Damiere Byrd. Three-fifths of his offensive line — David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Isaiah Wynn — missed time. Julian Edelman barely played before an injury ended his season. Rex Burkhead tore his knee. James White experienced a personal tragedy. Sony Michel and Damien Harris missed 13 combined games.
Some may look at that as a pile of excuses. But look at that and ask the question: Who could have possibly succeeded under those circumstances.
Tom Brady, the greatest there is and the greatest there ever will be, didn’t look too hot while working in a similar offense the year prior. As a result, many concluded that he was washed up. And how did he look last year, with some talent around him?
The year-to-year jump with Cam was not going to be at that Super Bowl MVP level, no. But with real tight ends, and real wide receivers, and maybe the best offensive line in football, Newton was in position to look like a completely different quarterback in 2021. The man who rushed for nearly 600 yards with 12 touchdowns on the ground was going to be at the helm of a capable offense. After last year’s whirlwind — getting cut by Carolina after being the face of the franchise for nearly a decade, remaining employer-less through the spring, signing late with New England, not having a preseason, learning a complex system, establishing relationships with teammates while facing strict COVID protocols, testing positive in Week 4 — this was going to be Newton’s first real chance to thrive in a winning environment in New England.
Maybe he would have seized the moment, playing at a Pro Bowl type of level and rejuvenating his career at age 32. Maybe the issues that plagued him last year — trouble recognizing a rush, some inaccurate throws, passes batted down at the line — would have derailed him yet again. In sports, you can never know either way with certainty. Based on his brief preseason work — good against Washington, outstanding vs. Philadelphia, bad against New York — results might have varied week to week.
The point, though, is not to lay out imaginary results for performances that will never happen. It is merely to lament that Newton won’t get his chance. The former No. 1 overall pick sacrificed plenty of stature, put his head down, followed “The Way” of Bill Belichick’s operation, and put in the work — all while carrying himself with a wholly unique level of flash and panache that only a bona fide superstar can deliver.
His passing results weren’t great, no. But he was a good employee, and he was great for business. Few others could have delivered Cam’s level of juice. Few others could have seamlessly stepped in immediately after Tom Brady — TOM BRADY! — left town after 20 years of unprecedented success. Cam did all of that without making it even look difficult. And he never pointed a finger at any teammate who might not have been playing at a championship-caliber level. Instead he backed his teammates — N’Keal Harry, for one — any chance he could, even after they made costly mistakes or bad plays. And his teammates loved him for it.
For as humdrum as the 2020 season in empty stadiums may have been, can you imagine what it would have been like with … Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer running the show? Seven wins could have easily shrunken to five … or four … or worse. The Patriots could have had their worst season since the Dick MacPherson era. While mediocrity is nothing to celebrate, Newton at least saved the franchise from that shame.
Alas, professional sports — and the NFL in particular — don’t offer opportunities based on generosity. The Patriots believe it’s best to roll with Mac Jones as soon as possible, so that’s what they’re going to do. It feels safe to assume he won’t be embarking on a run of six Super Bowls, but most locals would be pleased with double-digit victories and perhaps a win on wild card weekend. The building of a future provides the hope that keeps fans invested. No matter what, after the selection of Jones at No. 15 overall, Newton was never going to be the future in New England.
Still, watching Cam this year, in this offense? It could have been fun. And in any other business that’s not as cutthroat as the NFL, most folks would agree that he had earned that opportunity. Unfortunately for him, he works in an industry with more churn than a dairy farm. And now he’s once again looking for an opportunity.
That is … well, it’s a bummer. Every player confronts that harsh reality at some point, but after delivering nothing but positivity through an objectively negative year in human history, Newton probably didn’t deserve to be in that position right now.
But of course, deserve’s got nothing to do with it. The Patriots have moved on.
Anyone hoping to see that first real chance to succeed in New England can’t help but feel a little let down that the Cam Newton era ended so soon, so abruptly. Life — and the football season — will go on, but some of us can’t help but wonder how it would have looked in year two for No. 1.