One of the more endearing plot developments of the 2020 NFL season came via the partnership between a grumpy old, control-freak coach and a free spirited, big personality former MVP quarterback.
You didn’t have to be a New England Patriots fan to wonder how this was going to play out.
They seemed to be polar opposites, except, of course, for their shared competitiveness and desire to win. Other than that, this seemed to be the marriage of old gray sweatshirts and bright, fashion-risk suits. An odd couple, no doubt.
What resulted was a buddy film of sorts. The end product that matters may not have worked out so well — New England finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons.
Yet behind the scenes a partnership formed. The two respected each other’s acumen, intelligence and drive. Newton became a huge hit inside the organization, winning over coaches for his extra devotion, teammates that he dished out nicknames to, and even media for his openness and availability.
It was enough that the two sides decided to run it back (perhaps) on Friday, when Newton and New England agreed to a one-year contract. The price tag, per ESPN, is about $14 million, although it is likely far less than that in guaranteed money.
The move doesn’t solve the Patriots’ post-Tom Brady quarterbacking situation. At least not for the long haul. Newton, who turns 32 in May, wasn’t very good. If he had been, if he had answered the doubts post-Carolina, then this deal would be for three or four years.
Instead it offers the Patriots an insurance policy with plenty of intriguing upside. New England, flush with $60 million or so in salary-cap space, can still pursue other veteran quarterbacks, including trying to bring Jimmy Garoppolo back from San Francisco.
It can still draft a young signal-caller, maybe even Alabama’s Mac Jones with the 15th overall pick, or a project in the later rounds.
Newton, like any Patriot, is promised nothing. He’s good with that. Speaking on the “I Am Athlete” podcast in February, he expressed his desire to return to Foxborough, if for nothing else but life consistency.
What Newton is still capable of on the field is a huge question.
He started the year very well, completing 68.1 percent of his passes for 714 yards and two touchdowns in the first three games. He also ran for 149 yards and two more scores. New England was 2-1, the loss coming in a thriller at Seattle.
Then Newton got COVID-19, missed Week 4 and not only didn’t recover, he regressed. His completion percentage dropped to 64.9 percent and he posted six games where he threw for fewer than 120 yards. He tossed just six touchdowns against eight interceptions. By the end, it hardly looked like he could throw, an unsightly fall for a guy who dominated the NFL in 2015 with Carolina.
Yet — and this has to be part of Belichick’s thinking — he was dealing with the same limited offense that caused Tom Brady to flee to Tampa Bay. Actually, it was worse. Julian Edelman and a host of other weapons were out down the stretch. And the defense was never the same after five critical preseason COVID opt-outs.
It’s fairly clear the virus impacted Newton’s play. So did the unusual aspect of the season — no minicamps, a truncated preseason and a lack of practice time together. Newton plays partially on feel, emotion and togetherness. He wasn’t able to establish that.
Could more time to recover from the virus, a far more normal offseason and another shot with a more complete roster give him one more pulse in his career? Belichick certainly thinks it’s possible. They may have become friends, of sorts, but Belichick isn’t bringing anyone back because he likes having him around.
At this point, the risks are fairly small. New England is no longer desperate to sign a QB when free agency begins next week. If they were going to go with a short-term veteran — a Ryan Fitzpatrick or Andy Dalton — then why not keep the one they have?
Newton also remains an extremely popular player among players. If the Patriots are going to try to woo some much-needed offensive free agent talent — tight end Hunter Henry or wide receiver Kenny Golladay — then having a QB in place, Newton in particular, at least gives their recruiting pitch a jolt.
And if they go the rookie QB route in some form, then there is a guy who can serve (and appears quite eager to serve) as a veteran mentor in place. At his peak, not many played the game of football better than Cam Newton.
If nothing else, we get one more year of the Bill and Cam Show — an unexpected partnership that proves opposites, at least superficially, can still attract.
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