It was pretty tough yesterday to spend a Sunday without a Patriots game getting a lay of the land around the NFL. After watching Josh McDaniels trying to steer his failing offense into the skid they've been on for the better part of two months, flipping around from one game to the next to Red Zone and to the highlight shows and seeing one long quick strike chunk play after another was jarring, to put it mildly. It felt like Brooks getting out of Shawshank after all those years trying to process all the cars speeding by and wondering how everyone got themselves into such a damned hurry. And we know how things worked out for him.
Here are a few telling facts that put the current situation into easy to digest numbers.
Speaking of characters who came to a bad end, I'd forgotten all about The Little Kittner Boy, whose four starts for the 2003 Falcons were the equivalent of watching him spill out all over the dock.
Granted, to be fair, you can easily make a case that very little of this is on Cam Newton. You could say he's the Marshall (10 points) in a game of Stratego where most of his other pieces are Spies (1 point). But according to Albert Breer in today's MMQB, the NFL executives he talked to aren't buying it.
The situation around him is really bad—the Patriots might have the worst tight end and worst receiver rooms in the league—and that’s reflected in the fact that Newton’s numbers (78.9 passer rating) aren’t much different than Tom Brady’s over the last nine games of last year (78.1). There’s also the question of whether the Patriots have deployed him correctly. … And it’s fair to point out that over a season and a half in 2018 and 2019, Newton played almost no football.
But … that has only led to more questions about Newton’s future, so I took the time Saturday to examine that and ask a few coaches and scouts that have faced him this year a simple question: Does Cam have anything left?
AFC exec 1: Boy, I don’t know. I was optimistic [earlier in the year]. He looks like a backup right now. I think he’ll have a chance to be a No. 2 somewhere, but New England can’t win with him right now with a great offensive mind calling plays. [The talent around him] doesn’t help. You see the names of the wide receivers they’ve drafted?
AFC exec 2: I think he can still be a competitive starter, but he’s far from elite because he’s not the same athlete with speed anymore. He’s playing with a below-average receiving corps too, so if his next team has better weapons, I could see his statistics increase and become a more effective passer. I don’t see him getting a large multiyear deal on the market. … He’s always had a jerky, power type motion. Maybe he doesn’t have quite the velocity he used to. He’s more accurate down the field than on the short stuff actually … because of his motion.
AFC defensive coordinator: “I think his body is breaking down. Never has been a great passer of the ball. Looks to me like he is an older tailback playing QB.”
NFC defensive coach: I really don’t. It’s crazy to think that four short years ago, in 2015, he accounted for 50 touchdowns and was the league MVP. … Can’t throw, no accuracy. Also, when he runs it’s with no authority.
NFC defensive coach 2: No. Throwing motion is messed up. Injury has changed him. Doesn’t look like he can bring his arm all the way back. And he can’t raise the ball up either. Almost looks like his shoulder prevents him from getting his elbow up in his throwing motion. It’s awkward.
Breer goes onto say that while Newton's 2021 future is uncertain, he's "beloved [emphasis his] by that locker room and staff, so it’s not hard to envision a scenario where he’s back" in Foxboro next season.
Still, these are tough Yelp reviews to read. A backup. Not the same athlete. His body is breaking down. An older tailback playing QB. No accuracy. Throwing motion is messed up. And I can't say that I disagree with any of these points. But Breer or the NFL people he spoke to. He's earned the mountain ranges of respect he's gotten. As a player, a teammate and as the face of the franchise. He's never once had a negative thing to say about anyone, except when being self-critical. Which is something he's never shied away from. His team seems to gravitate to him. He's probably taken more physical abuse than any quarterback in the league, given that he's got 113 carries to Lamar Jackson's 116 and Kyler Murray's 115, and a disproportionate number of his are short yardage and goal line. And he's done it all while making just slightly more money than Joe Cardona.
But there's no getting around the fact the passing game is virtually nonexistent. Has been for months. Not to mention, predictable. That Pick-6 I started this post with fooled nobody.
And to the point these professional evaluators were making, it does seem physical. I don't think in the season and a half Newton was away from football, he forgot how to play or read a defense. And he'll, on occasion, get some velocity on a throw. But it's only under perfect conditions, where he has room to make a full body throw like a Punt, Pass & Kick kid. A buddy of mine and I were talking about this at the bar yesterday and all I could think of was Newton's mechanics are like you'd see in footage of old pitchers. Like Juan Marichal:
It's probably related to his shoulder surgery. That even if he's having no discomfort and he's every bit the ripped specimen he was before, there are lingering effects that made a mess of his mechanics. As that last guy says, "Doesn’t look like he can bring his arm all the way back."
And if that is the case, it's gotten progressively worse lately. After posting three straight games with a passer rating of 99.0 or better, in his last three games he's gone: 23.6, 87.4 (with 69 passing yards) and 53.9. It's not making excuses if everyone in the league acknowledges it. It's just dealing with reality on reality's terms.
Maybe he does return next season because he's engendered so much goodwill in the few months he's been here. It's just hard to read all that an imagine him as the starter. In a limited role like Taysom Hill type of role or as your full time No. 2 perhaps. But all these scouts and coaches can't be wrong as they agree with what your eyes and the numbers tell you. The question isn't whether Newton will be the starter in 2021. It's whether he'll still be the starter in the 16th game of 2020. Because this experiment isn't working and everyone in the league recognizes it.