What's next for Cam Newton, Patriots? An inside look at New England's QB conundrum

“Cam can’t play football anymore.”

Rodney Harrison had no problem launching that scud missile at Cam Newton last month on Tom Curran’s Patriots Talk Podcast. The former Patriot played with arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, winning a pair of Super Bowls during his six seasons in New England. And as a terrific player in his own right who earned first-team All-Pro honors at safety with the Patriots and Chargers during his 15-year NFL career, Harrison’s informed opinion obviously carries some weight.

But was this candid assessment of the former NFL MVP fair? Did Harrison have all of the information needed to make a statement that left no wiggle room?

Harrison isn’t alone in his criticism of Newton’s 2020 campaign, of course. In an era where it’s never been easier to pass the football, Newton scuffled mightily this past season, throwing for just over 2,600 yards with more interceptions than touchdown passes over 15 starts. It wasn’t good enough — not at that position, not in this offense, not with what it came after.

Newton ranked 35th out of 35 qualified quarterbacks in passing yards per game (177.1), 28th in passer rating (82.9) and became just one of five qualified passers since the 1970 merger with a 65-plus completion percentage (65.8, 18th in NFL) and fewer than 180 passing yards per game, joining David Carr (2006), Kelly Holcomb (2005), Cody Carlson (1992) and the 1983 version of Ken Anderson. None of those four ever started 10-plus games in a single season again after achieving this ignominious feat. Is Newton headed down that same road? In early January, at the completion of the season, he was asked if he could see himself as a backup.

“I know out of 32 guys, I’m not the 32nd position rank in that position,” he said in a WEEI radio appearance. “So you have to also understand I’m a competitor first. I think the highest of myself first, as any person would and should. I know what my skill set is, I know what my talent is. I understand that if given the opportunity, there is nobody better than me. That’s how I will always feel.”

One thing Newton’s certain about is his desire to sign a new contract much earlier than he did last year, when Cam didn’t officially become a Patriot until the second week of July. In conversations with teammates and those inside the organization this offseason, many point to Newton being placed in an untenable situation, replacing Brady with no spring ramp-up to digest and understand a voluminous playbook, learn the players around him and, of course, do any of this in person for stretches because of COVID-19 restrictions around the league. Not to mention, Newton missed a start at Kansas City in early October after testing positive for the virus.

What was also mentioned by some was the belief that it was difficult to meld Josh McDaniels’ offense with Newton’s unique skill set. One player said viewing the game tape too often felt like watching the Brady offense with a few QB runs mixed in — and that, rather quickly, became too easy to decipher. (It should be noted that Cam’s 2020 completion percentage was better than Brady’s in either of the past two seasons.) Another player described it as a lack of connection between the offense and quarterback, juxtaposing New England’s handling of Newton against Buffalo’s approach with Josh Allen. The player lauded Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s strategic evolution over the past few years, from initially implementing week-to-week game plans to eventually just letting Allen do what he does best. “Here it is,” the player said. “Stop it.”

Others in the Patriots building believed that McDaniels did the best he could to hide the 31-year-old signal-caller’s deficiencies while also highlighting his strengths (see: 12 rushing TDs, the second-highest single-season total in Cam’s career). Many felt the Patriots offensive coordinator went out of his way to make his veteran quarterback comfortable, especially considering the lack of time they had to work together before Week 1. In fact, there are strong voices at all levels of the franchise who believe McDaniels did a fine job teaching Newton a language that had been written decades ago — and that Newton was, by and large, up to that task.

Yes, at times, Cam was slow to process his reads or wasn’t quick enough to pull the trigger. But organizationally, there was real concern about Newton immediately following his stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list, with horrendous outings against Denver and San Francisco (five combined picks, 43.2 passer rating) cited as anomalies over the course of the season. Between that and an arm that didn’t always answer the call, the passing game mostly lagged in New England.

But the idea that you could place the entirety of blame at Newton’s feet — for the lack of points and yards and overall offensive efficiency — is scoffed at by everyone I spoke to. In fact, many believe the signal-caller’s progress was impressive, especially when you consider that he was surrounded by one of the least productive wide receiver/tight end groups in the league. The eye test bore that out over 16 games, and the numbers did, too.

2020 Patriots wide receivers

2020 Patriots tight ends

It wasn’t just that. It was an inability to produce big plays in the passing game, where the best receiver — by far — was former undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers. The Pats couldn’t push the ball downfield. They managed only one reception of 50-plus yards, dead last in the league, and just 38 pass plays of 20 yards or more, tied for 29th. This certainly wasn’t the 2015 Carolina Panthers offense with big-bodied targets who could go deep. As teams got a better feel for the cast of characters being rolled out by the Pats’ offense on a weekly basis — especially with Julian Edelman at first hobbled then lost for the final 10 games of the season — there was no fear these “weapons” would ruin a defensive game plan.

“It wasn’t a mystery,” said one Patriots player.

One thing that was truly surprising: New England’s willingness to be bargain-basement shoppers and drafters after Brady’s final season. In 2019, the Patriots started out 8-0, but went 4-5 down the stretch, culminating in a Wild Card Weekend loss to the Titans. As the ’19 campaign wore on, those Pats struggled mightily to find answers to their own personnel problems (sound familiar?). And while there are countless reasons why Brady took his talents to Tampa Bay, one common sentiment is that Tom knew not much would change in New England and that there would be no Super Bowls in his immediate future there. Brady’s final offensive lineup in Foxborough featured a 100-catch Edelman, a veteran target in Mohamed Sanu, a very capable WR4 in Phillip Dorsett and two experienced tight ends, Benjamin Watson and Matt LaCosse. That group certainly wasn’t the best collection of talent Brady played with in New England — not by a long shot — but it was far better than what Newton was left to work with in 2020, following a nonexistent offseason program.

So now what’s left for the Patriots to do as they enter a second straight offseason with uncertainty at the most important position on the field?

First, New England has to assess whether Newton — who’s set to hit the open market in a couple weeks — could become “the guy” with serious upgrades at wide receiver and tight end. The Patriots are primed to make moves, with $60 million-plus in cap space in an offseason where many teams face tough roster decisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the salary cap. It sure sounds like the Pats are investigating any and everything on the market. They also have draft currency, including the franchise’s highest first-round selection in over a decade, No. 15 overall. Would a better supporting cast and a fully immersed Newton lead to a more explosive, more productive offense? Or is New England’s best option elsewhere? Is it someone who wasn’t on the 2020 roster? Unless the Pats make a move for Jimmy Garoppolo (or Jacoby Brissett, for that matter), they’ll once again be tasked with teaching an offense that clearly takes time to master.

It’s hard to know which way New England will go this offseason, but what is certain is that no one with the Patriots wants to struggle anywhere near as much as they did in 2020. That part of the equation is not acceptable, but maybe the right answer actually does include Newton back under center in 2021.

Follow Mike Giardi on Twitter.

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