For the past three months, the New England Patriots led us to believe that they were going to give up. They were going to replace the best quarterback of all-time in Tom Brady with a fourth-round pick that no one really knew about when countless other options existed on the market. It was the most Patriots thing ever, and because of their resume, it also didn’t seem like the most ridiculous thing ever.
Turns out, giving up was likely never their plan after all.
Sure, Cam Newton could have been scooped up by any other team over the past three months, but according to multiple reports, New England’s minimum, incentive-based deal was the former Carolina quarterback’s only offer, which coincided slyly with the NFL enforcing penalties on the Patriots due to them allegedly taping the Cincinnati Bengals illegally.
The Patriots had to be prepared for a world where they couldn’t sign Newton, which means they had at least some confidence in second year QB Jarrett Stidham going forward. But it was never as much as they had previously indicated.
How we got here is still stunning but also makes sense. Newton’s health has been a massive question mark the past two years – he’s dealt with a foot injury and a shoulder injury which never seemed to go away. Any team signing him to be a starter right after his release was risky, since the coronavirus pandemic didn’t allow teams to do medical checks. Signing him to be a backup would have created a media controversy over who a team’s actual starting QB was, especially if that team that may not have the best current situation at the position.
These factors seriously limited Newton’s options – teams like New England or the Chargers were the only places that made sense, and the Chargers made it clear after the draft that they were out. So, New England let the market cool, knowing they had no competition for his services, and was able to slide him in on a bargain deal rather than blindly pay a large number shortly after his release.
With his health the x-factor, it seems odd that the Patriots would go about signing Newton and presumably make him the starter if they didn’t believe he was healthy. Why create excitement when you’re not sure? Additionally, bringing someone in to challenge your young QB in Stidham could hurt the second year signal-caller’s confidence. If Newton gets hurt or doesn’t play well, pivoting to Stidham shows that the franchise didn’t believe in him as much as they led onto the past couple months.
On the other hand, New England is only out the NFL’s minimum salary if the Newton acquisition doesn’t work out, and if it does, the contract tops out at $7.5 million, which isn’t much either. Plus, it did serve as a cover for the penalties handed down by the NFL Sunday night, and it certainly worked. You couldn’t find a story about the penalties anywhere on ESPN.com’s home page Monday – it was all Newton content instead.
Ultimately, the Patriots still might have two really good options here. Newton could be healthy – and good – and suddenly New England is a Super Bowl contender thanks to one of the league’s best defenses and an above-average quarterback at the helm. Or, Newton isn’t healthy and/or doesn’t play well, the Patriots owe him nothing, and New England is still content with handing the reigns over to Stidham, despite his confidence maybe being hurt a little bit. Again, Stidham had to be in the Patriots plans, even if he was Option C. There was absolutely world – probably a non-pandemic world – where they lose Newton. There, they would’ve had to pivot to Stidham. If he wasn’t in their plans, they would have gone after an Andy Dalton or Ryan Tannehill mold or drafted someone.
Touting the Patriots as contenders might seem generous, but let’s lay out the case. This operates as if health isn’t a question, because as noted, this move may not make much sense if the Patriots have questions about his health. Newton has never been worse than average healthy. If Carolina’s been bad, it’s been due to other injuries on the roster or a pure lack of talent around Newton, something that they’ve struggled with for years thanks to David Gettleman at GM and a defensive-minded head coach in Ron Rivera. Their 6-10 season after Newton’s MVP-winning, 15-1 season could be pinned on the beginning of his shoulder problems – he had surgery after the season to repair his rotator cuff. The year after, in 2017-18, Newton and the Panthers went 11-5 with Newton leading the team in rushing and Devin Funchess as the leading receiver. It was Newton carrying the offense, with Christian McCaffrey being misused and Greg Olsen as the most talented pass-catcher.
The following two years led to more shoulder problems and a foot injury, which led to his season being over this past Fall and his eventual release from Carolina.
Post MVP, when his career seemed to peak, Newton’s never been bad on his own. Injuries have caused poor performance or Carolina’s infrastructure failed him, which also included one of football’s worst offensive lines over the middle of the decade aside from lackluster weapons.
Last year, the Patriots looked a lot like those Panthers teams – a group with an awesome defense whose offense just couldn’t do enough. That’s not necessarily a good thing for Newton, but New England’s offensive line is certainly better than any he had in Carolina. That will help immensely.
Plus, as hard as it might be to admit, Tom Brady was worse than ever last year. That’s not to say he’s toast, and that’s not to say he won’t be successful in Tampa Bay, but it seemed like the Patriots experienced the perfect storm of a regressed Brady, bad luck offensively (Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon) and poor performance from skill position players (like Mohammed Sanu, who New England gave up a second round pick for and just never made an impact and Sony Michel). It might have just been a bad year for everyone involved.
The Patriots still have Julian Edelman. They still have James White. They still have a good defense despite heavy losses in the offseason, and you know Bill Belichick will get more than expected out of them than less. There was no real reason for Sanu to play poorly last year – he should return to form as a good second or third option. The Patriots drafted two tight ends in the third round in April, which screams of a plan to possibly recreate the dominance Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi will likely be used heavily, and therefore be trusted targets. An offense with Newton at QB, White at RB, Edelman, Sanu, N’Keal Harry and two big tight ends in a perfect scheme fit? That could be deadly.
Last year feels like it should be an outlier for the Patriots. Even with Brady gone, Belichick still exists, and because of that, they shouldn’t be counted out. There’s a reason why it was going to be tough to totally write off New England with Stidham this year. New England tends to just figure things out. Last year was the first year in perhaps the last 20 where that didn’t happen. Now, they’ve made sure that next season, they won’t encounter the same problem, and that the rest of the league still has to take the Patriots as seriously as they did before.