Would the real Cam Newton please stand up?
The sooner he does, the better, so that any notion of a quarterback competition in Foxboro can be put to rest.
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Newton is a former league MVP. He possesses one of the most unique skill sets of any quarterback to ever take a snap in the NFL. He is, in many ways, the absolutely perfect quarterback to succeed Tom Brady in New England.
How so? Easy. For as much as Newton already has carved out a legacy of his own in the NFL, parts of his legacy remain unsecure. He needs the Patriots just as much as the Patriots need him – at full health – to stay afloat in the AFC.
Sure, it could have been a sounder long-term strategy to commit to Jarrett Stidham after one NFL season spent backing up Brady in which Stidham went 2 for 4 with an interception returned for a touchdown, but that ship sailed as soon as Newton signed in New England in late June.
The façade of a quarterback competition made sense for the first few days of training camp so as to not completely demoralize Stidham, but for all intents and purposes, the competition is over – by default, really, since Stidham is dealing with hip and leg discomfort that required a hospital visit last week.
By number of reps in practice, Newton isn’t just in the driver’s seat for the starting job in Week 1, he’s pulling away. Through nine practices, he’s attempted 156 passes between 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 team drills to just 61 for Stidham. Brian Hoyer, the third horse in this race – who has more experience in New England’s system than Newton or Stidham combined – has attempted 115.
And yet for some reason, it’s not yet etched in stone that Newton will be New England’s first opening day quarterback not named Brady since 2016, when Jimmy Garoppolo led the Patriots to a victory while Tom was suspended for his role in DeflateGate.
Asked if he felt like the team’s starter yet, Newton responded “absolutely not” on Wednesday.
“Every day is a work day for me,” Newton said. “That label is not important to me right now. I have so much I need to get better at, so much I need to learn, so much I need to be comfortable with.”
It’s commendable that Newton, who has a reputation of perhaps putting his own interests in front of his team’s, is toeing the company line after just two months in New England. Frankly, it would be a tad disconcerting if he came right out and declared himself the starter before being anointed as such.
Make no mistake about the way Newton’s teammates seem to feel about him, though. Julian Edelman, once conjoined at the hip with Brady, didn’t make this Instagram post with Stidham or Hoyer depicted as Superman.
“First thing you saw right away was the guy comes with a lot of energy every day, and he’s happy about that,” Devin McCourty told NFL Network last week in regards to Newton.
Not even Bill Belichick can deny the energy Newton brings.
“I think you see that in the morning going into the squad meeting or you see it on the practice field or in the dining room or whatever it happens to be,” the coach said. “That’s kind of the way he is.”
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Energy, of course, isn’t the be all, end all for starting quarterback prerequisites. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s one of the first 10 things coaches look at. Tim Tebow likely would’ve lasted longer than three years in the NFL if that were the case.
In terms of getting the call for Week 1, however, energy doesn’t hurt. Through no fault of his own but injury, Stidham hasn’t been able to grab the job by the horns and create an energy of his own. He continues to be limited in practice, taking the bulk of his snaps in team drills on designed hand-offs rather than passes. Damien Harris has popped at running back, if nothing else.
When he has thrown, Stidham has been... OK, completing 72% of his throws (44 for 61), but with seven interceptions.
And yes, to be absolutely clear, traditionally there is no bigger waste of time then fawning over training camp stats. None. They are the worst.
Unfortunately, what with the global pandemic and all, that’s the only metric to go off of when there’s no preseason games to look forward to.
Newton has thrown four picks in his 156 pass attempts, completing 100 of them, for a so-so 64% completion rate
“Cam, he’s worked very hard, picked things up well,” Belichick said, alluding to Stidham and Hoyer’s experience with the Patriots but Newton’s larger body of work overall. “So, we'll see how all that plays out, but I think we’re ready to, I would say, move forward from an execution standpoint. As I said, schematically, we’re far enough along here where we have plenty of football in to play a game and to play in everything but maybe a couple of the last play of the game type of situations. But other than that, we have a lot to play with. We’ll just have to see how well we can perform and perform against the competitive situation on the other side of the ball with our defense and vice versa.”
Part of the issue when it comes to Newton sealing the deal for the starting job is his own checkered injury history, specifically of late. He’s played in only two games since Dec. 17, 2018 – in part due to a toe injury he suffered against the Patriots last preseason – which can be looked at in one of two ways. Either he’s well-rested after enough time off, still at the relatively spry age of 31, or the bottom is falling out from Newton after three up-and-down seasons following his 2015 MVP campaign and subsequent Super Bowl berth.
Again, without any true preseason games, it’s nearly impossible to know just how back in – or how far removed – Newton is from his prime.
For a team that’s traditionally used the first month of the regular season as an extension of the preseason – it’s truly amazing what Brady was able to mask at times – moving forward with Newton as the starting quarterback now isn’t just the right move, it’s the only move if the Patriots want to maximize their ceiling in 2020.
This weekend was supposed to be the third game of the preseason, the “dress rehearsal,” the real deal, as Belichick is so fond of hearing. Chances are, a starting quarterback would be named around this time anyways, so in the sense of a pursuit of something resembling normalcy, it’s time for Newton to officially get the nod.