When the Patriots signed Cam Newton last summer I was genuinely excited. I didn't find myself with the same feeling this morning when it was announced that he was returning, on yet another one-year prove it deal. The excitement in 2020 lasted through September, after he beat out Hoyer and Stidham, after he started off 2-1, articles and talking heads were focused on the same talking point: when is New England going to ink Cam to a long term extension. And then… COVID.
Cam said multiple times he was asymptomatic. That he did not suffer the fatigue issues that Jayson Tatum has mentioned in recent weeks. So while COVID wasn't the reason Cam was skipping rocks at receivers' feet from time to time, it certainly did not help him get comfortable in a new system, with new teammates, in an attempt to revive a career hanging on by a thread. No, Cam - physically - wasn't affected by COVID. The immediate three game losing streak that followed his return was the biggest pitfall. Being away from the team, not getting any reps with a team he joined July 8th. That stretch was brutal: ZERO touchdowns against a very beatable Broncos team; pulled against the 49ers - quite easily the most miserable game any of us have ever watched; and capped off by the 2020 New England Patriots' specialty: a fake comeback against the Buffalo Bills. Just like the Seahawks game in Week 2, the game ended with the ball in Cam's hands (or, in this case, on the ground), unable to make a play when it mattered most.
In a season of ebbs and flows, the next five games were about as good as it got: a 4-1 stretch beating the likes of Baltimore and Arizona while losing to the fucking Texans. Cam was 6-5 on December 9th. He wasn't throwing touchdowns, outside of the Chargers game it rarely looked pretty, but the team was in position to make a push. They opted to crumble. Reporters were practically begging Belichick to start Stidham for "a possible look at the future." I don't know Jarrett Stidham, seems like a nice enough guy, from what we've seen on a football field he's, statistically, Nathan Peterman. Belichick kept trotting out Cam, he kept his head up, beat the Jets in Week 17.
I very much thought the Patriots would be a playoff team prior to last season. I was wrong. Pre-and-post Cam signing with New England, there were still plenty of people near and far calling them Trevor Lawrence's next stop. They were wrong. The Patriots had more opt-outs than any team in football. Two rookie tight ends saw the field sparingly, the receivers were… well, they were on the team. Damien Harris looked great, Sony Michel looked like the guy we intended to draft, Michael Onwenu has to be the most beloved Patriots offensive rookie of this century. Stephon Gilmore wasn't quite the DPOY he was the year prior, JC Jackson was never quite ready to take that CB1 spot from him, the McCourtys understandably lost a half-step.
The reason I wasn't as excited this morning as I was eight months ago is the discourse around it. For whatever reason, you can't point out that the defense wasn't the same without Dont'a Hightower anchoring it. You can't say that Jakobi Meyers is probably better off as your WR3. You can't talk about the dearth of production from the tight ends. All of that is viewed as deflection. Two years ago people were quick to point out the receivers weren't good enough, the situation got worse but the excuse went away. Cam wasn't great. But can you win with him? They went fucking 7-8 when he started. Of course you can win with him.
What you can't do is go into free agency next week, regardless of how much cap room you have, and start filling in holes on the offensive side of the ball with no quarterback on the roster. No one is signing up for that, I don't care how much money you're throwing around. Everyone has money. The Chiefs are perpetually "capped out" yet they just opened up $17 million in space by converting Patrick Mahomes' 2021 salary into a signing bonus. Same with the Bucs. So going into free agency, trying to lure receivers, trying to convince Hunter Henry to come to New England, becomes leaps and bounds easier with Cam Newton already locked in. That's not me comparing Cam to Mahomes or Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson or any other top flight quarterback, that's not the argument. The argument is would your standard NFL receiver rather play with Cam or Marcus Mariota? Ryan Fitzpatrick? Teddy Bridgewater? Mitchell Trubisky? Those are the replacements the Patriots were linked to. And if you're going to point to the small streaks of success any of them had a year ago, at least have the decency to do it both ways.
Plus, the Patriots still pick 15th. Cam signed a 1-year, incentive laden deal. They had a scout watch Trey Lance's pro day today. If Nick Saban signs off on Mac Jones, would Bill pass on him at 15? It's another deep receiver draft, if you don't fix the problem entirely in free agency you don't have to take Rondale Moore or Kadarius Toney in the first with plenty of good options available in the middle rounds. Personally, I want Jaycee Horn, because Gilmore will need a replacement and I can't risk having Asante Samuel Jr. let an important interception slip through his hands a decade from now. But would I be shocked, or even upset, if Bill took Lance or Jones at 15, let them sit a month or two before passing the torch? Not at all. In fact, I'd welcome it. Go get me three of: Curtis Samuel, Will Fuller, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Gerald Everett, Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Corey Davis, Juju Smith-Schuster, hell, someone like Keelan Cole would look like '07 Moss compared to last year's options. Between the draft and cap space I see a whole heap of ways to improve this team drastically for '21 while simultaneously prepping for the future. Save for trading for Deshaun, I genuinely don't believe any of it could happen without this domino falling first.