After having a franchise quarterback, nothing in the NFL is more important than spotting the next franchise quarterback.
The heir apparent. The Steve Young to Joe Montana in San Francisco, the Aaron Rodgers to Brett Favre in Green Bay. The Jimmy Garoppolo to Tom Brady in New England.
That last one, of course, never happened. Neither will Jarrett Stidham to Tom Brady, barring a dramatic change in circumstances over the next few months, because we’re about to witness a brand-new kind of succession plan that has every chance to be just as successful as what the 49ers and Packers executed.
Cam Newton is days away from his first start at quarterback for the Patriots. Unlike Young and Rodgers, Newton is following in Brady’s footsteps with credentials that have him on the way to building a compelling case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Newton isn’t a surefire Hall of Famer yet, mind you. But get this: at just 31 years old, he’s the exact same age as Young was during his first full season as Montana’s replacement in San Francisco.
Young won his first of two league MVP awards that season, in 1992, and was named First Team All-Pro at quarterback for the first of three consecutive seasons, which culminated in the 49ers winning Super Bowl XXIX after the 1994 season.
Imagine a scenario in which Newton brings the Patriots to similar heights post-Brady.
Newton should be no worse than the second-most motivated player in the NFL this season – after perhaps Brady himself. Newton was unceremoniously released by Carolina, the only franchise he’d ever known, a week into free agency in March. He sat around until the end of June before latching on with the Patriots as several teams – including New England, at least initially – said thanks, but no thanks, to his services.
“Honestly, [it’s] a match made in heaven for me,” Newton told WEEI’s Greg Hill of his situation in New England earlier this week.
If Newton holds up, it’ll be a match which could propel him into Canton someday.
Using Pro Football Reference’s excellent Hall of Fame monitor, you can see that while Newton's candidacy is still dicey, it's not completely pie in the sky, either.
The Hall of Fame monitor weighs a variety of factors in determining whether a player is Canton-worthy or not, including championships won, First Team All-Pro nods and Pro Bowl berths.
Newton already has one First Team All-Pro to his credit – more than Hall of Famers John Elway, Roger Staubach, Warren Moon and Troy Aikman, as well as upcoming candidates Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning. His three Pro Bowl berths in eight years as a starter aren't great, but it does match Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw's total.
With eight years as a team's primary starting quarterback, Newton has matched the low-water mark of Hall of Famers Staubach and Kurt Warner. If he can finish out the 2020 season for the Patriots, he'll match Young and Broadway Joe Namath among Hall of Famers with just nine seasons as a starting quarterback in the league.
Where Newton is severely lacking, of course, is championships, still stuck on zero. But that hasn't stopped Moon, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton or Jim Kelly from enshrinement.
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Another area where Newton is similar to Young is that he's taking over for a quarterback who, at the time, was the consensus greatest ever. Newton doesn't exactly have a Jerry Rice to work with as he tries to move the Patriots forward into a new era, but Julian Edelman, James White and – hopefully – N'Keal Harry can provide Newton a foundation of skill position players he seldom had at his disposal in Carolina. Edelman is building a Hall of Fame case of his own, lest we forget.
While there's very little precedent for a quarterback being named First Team All-Pro with two organizations – only Peyton Manning and Earl Morrall have done it – Newton may not be in need of as many individual accolades as he is championships when it comes to separating himself from the pack.
Good thing, given New England's team-first mentality.
This plays into Newton's favor a bit more, as three coaches have won Super Bowls with the same team with different starting quarterbacks: Joe Gibbs with Washington, Bill Parcells with the Giants and George Seifert with the 49ers – there's that Montana-to-Young angle again. Bill Belichick would look pretty good on that list, no?
"He’s come in and done everything we’ve asked him to do," Belichick said of Newton earlier this week. "He works hard. He’s obviously a very talented player and looking forward to continue to work with him. We’ll just take it day-by-day, but he’s given us everything he’s had and we’ve tried to put the team in the best position we can competitively. We’ll see how that all comes out."
One area in which Newton is undeniably different from Young is the wear-and-tear on his body at age 31. He's played in just two games since December 2018 due to a myriad of injuries, and is 6-10 over his last 16 starts.
Part of the toll on Newton, however, comes from being maybe the very best ever as a quarterback with his specific skill set: his 58 career rushing touchdowns are tops among passers (Young is second, with 43) and he's third in career rushing yards, at 4,806. Newton needs only 123 yards on the ground to pass Randall Cunningham for second and is 1,303 away from Mike Vick at the top.
Newton beating out Stidham and Brian Hoyer for New England's starting quarterback job was a necessary first step in running away with the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award in 2020.
Now that the formalities are out of the way, it's time for Newton to get to work in recapturing what made him such a unique talent coming out of Auburn as a Heisman Trophy winner, national champion and first overall pick in the 2011 draft.
No scenario exists in which Newton can surpass Tom Brady's accomplishments in New England, but there's no quarterback better fit to continue the Patriots legacy of winning.
By continuing such a legacy, Newton will be cementing his own.