From the moment that former NFL MVP Cam Newton signed with the New England Patriots, the debate started over whether or not he could be a long-term answer at the quarterback position. Newton, 31, was coming off consecutive season-ending injuries, and it had been nearly two years since he looked like a functional starting quarterback.
Now that Newton is 9 games into his Patriots career, the franchise should be ready to take a stance. Cam Newton should be the quarterback that they build around for the future, contingent on him staying healthy down the stretch of the season.
New England is just 4-5 in Newton’s nine starts this season, but his play has steadily improved. Particularly over the past month, Newton has the Patriots offense playing efficient football.
Over the past 4 games, Cam has completed 69.2% of his passes, averaged 230 passing yards per game, and scored 6 total touchdowns (2 passing, 4 rushing). Newton has just 1 fumble over that time, but he hasn’t thrown an interception over his last 117 attempts.
The offense has been well-balanced over those games, scoring at least 20 points in each outing. New England has gained 97 first downs on 38 offensive drives (4 of which have been end-of-half kneel downs), and is averaging over 380 total yards per game.
Not only has the offense started to play well, but Cam has improved his game on film as he gets healthier, knocked off the rust after a limited offseason, and has gained comfortability in the offensive system.
Newton’s passing production has been skewed a bit due to his rushing ability, as he only has 4 passing touchdowns on the season but 9 on the ground. New England has preferred to use his athleticism in the redzone, but all of those touchdowns count the same. We all know that Cam’s size and speed can be a weapon as a runner, and so far that ability hasn’t gone away (341 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per carry).
While the rushing statistics help an offense in the short-term, there is no secret that a franchise quarterback needs to be able to carry an offense with his arm. The front office and fanbase will only rally around a quarterback who can get it done as a passer, especially after nearly 20 years of Tom Brady leading the team.
Over the past month, Newton has improved as a passer compared to the first stretch of the season. He’s been a complete passer, throwing well to all levels and on multiple offensive designs.
New England has flashed a rollout, moving pocket package with Newton, something that didn’t exist with Tom Brady. This shortens the throw with Cam moving towards the target, while still picking up intermediate yardage. Newton’s accuracy on the move and towards the boundary have flashed on these reps, and continue to be an easy way for the offense to get on schedule.
Newton has long been known for his ability at extending the play as a passer. With his skill-set, he’s still capable of breaking tackles in the pocket or breaking contain while keeping his eyes downfield for the throw.
This trait has increased in importance in the modern NFL game, as the pass rushing talent has gotten better throughout the league. For the Patriots, it’s an extra weapon for the offense to make plays off-script.
Part of Cam’s development as a pure passer with New England is that his timing has gotten sharper. Not only has he flashed anticipation for route breaks, but he understands when to drive the ball with proper velocity. His ball placement on “Curl” or “Stop” routes has been lights out, protecting the ball from the defensive backs and delivering on time.
Notice on these reps that Newton is starting his release before the receivers have gotten into their route breaks, but still being placed accurately.
For some reason, there was once a narrative surrounding Cam Newton about his inability to read a defense and go through his progression. He has consistently put that to bed over his career, and that has continued this season.
Multiple times over the past month, Newton has wanted to make boundary throws that were ended up being well covered by the defense. Cam hasn’t forced these throws, instead working his progression towards the middle of the field.
He has shown that he’ll read the defense after coming off those initial routes, changing his arm angle, trajectory, and velocity based on man or zone coverage.
There was a similar play against the New York Jets that Newton came off of his initial read once the free safety declared to one side. Cam opened to the left, attempting to target receiver Damiere Byrd on a vertical route. When the Jets safety rotated to that side, Newton went back to the left and dropped a dime to Jakobi Meyers on a “Burst Corner” route. This play had both his process and accuracy on display.
New England has shown that they aren’t afraid to lean on Cam’s arm in clutch moments. Facing the Baltimore Ravens and needing a first down to extend a late drive, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up a passing concept with a “Sit” route near the first-down marker. Newton manipulated rookie linebacker Patrick Queen, forcing him towards the middle of the field and then gaining depth, opening the route for Jakobi Meyers to move the chains.
Being able to manipulate second and third-level defenders is an advanced trait for quarterbacks, especially in drop-back passing situations. Passing offenses can function at a high level when the quarterback is opening lanes for their wide receivers, and that’s something that Newton is currently doing to aid his average wide receiver corps.
While the pressure got to Newton a few times this past Sunday against Houston, he’s shown progression in feeling frontside pressure. When defenses have gotten push from the right side, Newton will dip his right shoulder to protect the football and climb up in the pocket. He’s advanced in the sense that he will keep his eyes downfield when this happens, and alter his footing to be in the best position to fire once he steps up.
This comfort and maneuverability in the pocket speaks to Cam’s growing confidence as a passer.
One aspect of the Patriots offense that was expected to take a step back with Cam Newton was their under center play-action passing game. These designs were a constant force with Tom Brady at quarterback, but Newton entered the season without similar experience in this area.
Surprisingly, the offense hasn’t missed a beat on these throws with Cam Newton. He’s been comfortable turning his back to the defense before finding his initial read in the intermediate, transferring his weight and delivering accurate passes that allow the receivers to pick up yards after the catch. Without a believable play-fake, these plays wouldn’t affect the opposing linebackers to the degree that they have.
New had his second best passing game of the season on Sunday against the Texans, throwing for 365 yards and 1 touchdown. Despite constant pressure and J.J. Watt impressively swatting four passes, Newton continued to stand in the pocket and deliver accurate passes. His downfield passing was surgical, as he was 8-9 for 207 yards and 1 touchdown on throws 10+ yards past the line of scrimmage.
New England has been spoiled over the past two decades with the best stretch of quarterback play the NFL has ever seen. There figured to be growing pains with whoever replaced Tom Brady, but Cam Newton has performed admirably.
Newton’s play is rapidly improving, and the roster will be stronger next season when a number of skilled veterans return from their COVID-19 opt-outs. If New England dedicates their draft picks and free agency to building around Cam Newton, this team should be back competing in the playoffs next season.
Newton’s level of play is not only sustainable over the long-term, but still has the potential to improve with better weapons around him. He’s proven that he should be the centerpiece of the roster and be rewarded with an extension in the offseason.