Why Bill Belichick’s Cam Newton experiment was an epic failure for Patriots

The Patriots’ experiment with Cam Newton wasn’t successful. Score one for all those who said he won’t work out as Bill Belichick’s starting quarterback. But those who thought Belichick and Josh McDaniels could get the best of Newton weren’t totally wrong — they were just misguided by New England’s genius reputation and blase approach to replacing Tom Brady.

Newton also had everyone still thinking about his MVP and Super Bowl run five years ago. But 2020 proved he’s a shell of that all-around QB and the Patriots simply couldn’t give him enough help in a playoff-less season to given them even competent QB play after seeing the GOAT walk

Newton’s stats through 14 starts (5 TDs, 10 INTs, 7.1 yards per attempt, 78.9 passer rating) confirmed he’s still the below-average passer he’s been for most of his career, with 2015 being the anomaly. He has rushed for 513 yards and 12 TDs, but those running numbers didn’t raise his overall effectiveness much in an era of truly game-changing dual threats.

Although Newton had a handful of impressive statistical games to remind everyone of his upside, the Patriots couldn’t flip that into a necessary consistent force needed to win more games than they would lose. The Patriots are one of five teams in the NFL averaging fewer than 20 points per game going into Week 17. They ended the Brady era as the No. 7 scoring offense; without him, they have gone down the equivalent of one touchdown per game.

After the Panthers released Newton, there was zero initial interest in him in free agency. At the same time, the Patriots, after letting Brady find a new home with the Buccaneers, didn’t really enter the veteran market and completely ignored the position in the draft. Through the end of June, they put up the proud front that they would be rolling with second-year fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham.

When Newton agreed to join the Patriots, some said the stars had aligned for Belichick to steal a top starting QB at a bargain-basement price. But in reality, it was a marriage out of desperation. Newton was the best of what little was out there, and Patriots were stuck no longer believing in Stidham too close to the season.

In most offseasons, adding a starting QB right before July to learn an offense completely foreign to him isn’t ideal. But this was the 2020 virtual offseason with no preseason and a watered-down version of training camp. And this is the Patriots’ offense with McDaniels, a system too complex to master in a crash course with limited live reps.

Then there was the issue of whether Newton’s wear and tear with injuries to his shoulder and foot would be a factor, despite reports he was fully healthy again. Newton did look physically much better than he had in a while, but the long layoff from playing meaningful games plus the rust of going though an offseason mostly without a team showed up. When everything was right, Newton made the big throws, but when things were a little off, which was most of the time, he was his most inaccurate self.

The Patriots then expected to get by with being an “old school meets new school” run-heavy offense a poor man’s version of the zone-read magic the Ravens have going with Lamar Jackson. But then the offensive line broke down and was inconsistent because of injuries. The backfield shuffle was in full effect with ailments to Sony Michel, Damien Harris and Rex Burkhead.

Suddenly, the Patriots were forced to be more dependent on Newton and had to put more on Newton’s passing than they would have liked. To that end, they really didn’t do much to upgrade their wide receiver corps, which became absolutely costly when Julian Edelman went on the shelf. Jakobi Meyers proved to be a revelation at times in the slot, but the combination of Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry would be hard pressed to start outside for any other team in the NFL. There also was nothing at tight end.

Brady wasn’t getting the help he needed at the skill positions, either, and was being called upon to rely on shaky playmakers. That’s a big reason why he was drawn to the receiving riches of the Buccaneers. The Patriots probably didn’t expect better results with Newton operating with the same limited support, but they thought they could work around it more with Newton on the ground to flank the traditional running game.

The Patriots were fortunate to win so many games on the strength of their defense and special teams. Their big wins were more independent of Newton than because of Newton.

In essence, Belichick and McDaniels tried to use a “life hack” at quarterback, deploying duct tape at the most important position to cover up how broken they were there. But as much as Belichick has been the NFL’s MacGyver with his “Do Your Job” roster, there’s no such cheat code at QB.

Belichick might be the most cerebral coach in NFL history. He was smart enough to realize he had to scramble for the best possible makeshift solution. But he also, unlike other coaches and GMs, hasn’t needed to worry about QB at all for a long time.

Divorced from Brady after two decades, it had be hard for Belichick to get out there and match himself with the right new QB, given the limited options. Taking a flyer on a fling with Newton was worth it at the time. But let’s hope the failure with Newton will push him to find another serious winning relationship — and make a legitimate commitment to a true replacement franchise quarterback.

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