What do you get when you pair the model of franchise consistency with a quarterback who is occasionally spectacular but sometimes inaccurate?
What will happen when Cam Newton, one of the great rushing QBs in NFL history, pairs up with Bill Belichick, a head coach whose Hall of Fame career has never featured an elite runner as his signal-caller?
A popular narrative surrounding the New England Patriots in the wake of this week’s signing of Newton to a one-year deal can be summarized as follows: Belichick and Co. have upgraded the quarterback position – wouldn’t any fan rather watch a past MVP over Jarrett Stidham – but they sure picked a player who is incompatible with their system.
First, two disclaimers: Newton’s role with the Patriots is anything but certain. At the very least, he figures to compete for the team’s starting job. And his chances of winning that job in part depend on the condition of his surgically-repaired left foot. Newton suffered a Lisfranc injury 10 months ago, ending his 2019 season after two games. We’ll look at what might happen should he earn that starting nod.
The difference in styles between Newton and the Patriots’ offense is so stark as to be almost comical. Prior to his abbreviated 2019 campaign, Newton spent eight healthy seasons as the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback, fashioning a .561 winning percentage. His rushing numbers in those years were startling: 58 rushing touchdowns, tied for second in the NFL, and 4,808 yards, good for 14th in the league. And those are ranks among all players, not just quarterbacks.
While Newton averaged 601 rushing yards and just over seven rushing TDs per season between ’11 and ’18, consider the rushing of New England quarterbacks. The Patriots haven’t had a QB rush for 300 yards – half of Newton’s average – since 1979, when Steve Grogan dit it. No New England QB has scored as many as five touchdowns in a season since 1984. Who can forget Super Bowl starter Tony Eason?
What the Pats are getting in Newton is a player who is more than unusual. By several statistical measures, he is unique in NFL history. Some of his numbers:
Of course, the Patriots haven’t had a talent like Newton’s; few teams in league history have. The adaptability exhibited by the New England coaching staff over the years suggests the team will find a way to use those talents. Over Belichick’s two decades in Foxborough, the Patriots have consistently found roles for players as part of a winning formula. In 2004, the Pats took wide receiver Troy Brown – the team’s leading pass-catcher in three straight years – and added defensive back to his duties. Brown contributed three interceptions and five passes defensed for a Super Bowl-winning team.
Not three years later, the Patriots acquired an undrafted 5-foot-9 wide receiver who had been cast off by two organizations. All Wes Welker did in six years as the Pats’ slot receiver was haul in 672 passes, second most by any player in a six-season span in league history (topped by only Antonio Brown).
Then, there was a 5-foot-10 quarterback from Kent State whom the Patriots took with a seventh-round pick in 2009. Julian Edelman started his New England career as an effective punt returner, averaging 12.3 yards per return between 2010-14 (second only to Devin Hester). After Welker’s departure, Edelman took over as the team’s slot receiver in 2013 and has been almost as prolific as the man he replaced. His 599 career receptions rank second in team history, just 73 off Welker’s total.
Diminutive pass-catchers have been prominent in New England’s offense throughout Belichick’s tenure. Since 2000, the Pats have logged an NFL-high 3,536 completions to players 5-foot-10 or shorter; that’s almost double the second-highest total (1,821 by Seattle). In that time, five different New England running backs no taller than 5-foot-10 have caught at least 35 passes in a season, and three of them—Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead and Dion Lewis—are only 5-foot-8.
There’s more. In 2011, when the Pats had a pair of top tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, they established NFL single-season all-time highs in team receptions, yards and touchdowns from the TE position. The point being, New England’s deployment of players, especially on offense, has been unconventional and innovative – and very effective.
Which brings us to the quarterback position. No, the Patriots haven’t been innovative there; they haven’t had to be. For 18 of the last 20 seasons, Hall of Fame-bound Tom Brady, a pure pocket passer, manned the position expertly. We can’t help but point out: Brady’s career average is 3.64 rushing yards per game. Cam Newton’s average is 5.15 yards per rush!
Regarding Newton’s rushing, the question isn’t so much whether it can fit into New England’s offense, but if he can still tote the ball effectively at age 31. The combination of injury and attrition limits most featured running backs’ effectiveness after age 30, but what of running QBs?
The numbers are decidedly against Newton. We looked at 4,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, as well as quarterback seasons with at least 500 rushing yards, and how they break down by age. The 4,000-yard passing seasons are divided evenly between QBs under age 30 and those who had reached their 30th birthday. But only four of 49 QB seasons with 400-plus rushing yards were recorded by players age 30 and older:
Mike Vick (twice), Steve Young and Rich Gannon are the only quarterbacks to rush for as many as 500 yards in or after their age-30 season. Cam reached that figure in six of his eight healthy seasons with the Panthers, but his numbers dropped significantly after his fourth year. He averaged 5.5 yards per rush and 643 rushing yards per season between 2011 and 2014, compared to 4.8 yards per carry and 559 yards per season from ’15 through ’18.
A deeper look at Newton’s rushing reveals a significant change after his third season out of Auburn. In his first three years in the NFL, he was a frequent scrambler, piling up more than 1,000 rushing yards when chased out of the pocket. Beginning in 2014, Newton’s scrambles became less frequent, and his knack for gaining yards after contact diminished.
Note that, other than the 2017 campaign, running the ball on RPO plays has not been a significant part of Newton’s game. He rushed for 100 yards on such plays in 2017, and a total of only 33 yards in all other seasons.
This isn’t to label Newton a conventional dropback passer, but his age, his career arc and perhaps his injury suggest that his success in New England will hinge more on his passing than his running. And that side of Newton’s game has evolved as well. Most strikingly, his success in throwing deep passes has dwindled with each season since the MVP campaign of 2015, and the very deep throw, that is, over 40 yards downfield, has all but disappeared from his arsenal.
Note that the numbers above do include the 2019 campaign. In 560 pass attempts over the ’18 and ’19 seasons, Newton did not throw a single pass more than 40 yards downfield, and he hasn’t completed such a throw since 2016. Instead, the scheme in Carolina shifted to shorter, safer throws.
In the 2015 season, Newton ranked 28th among the NFL’s 35 qualifiers in completion percentage, connecting on 59.8% of his throws. That’s the second-lowest accuracy for a quarterback in an MVP season in the last three decades. (Brett Favre completed 59.3% in winning the award in 1997.) Newton offset his lack of accuracy with big-play ability, especially on deep passes. He picked up 13.0 yards per completion, ranking second among qualifiers, and piled up a superb 11 TD passes against only one interception on passes more than 20 yards downfield.
Fast forward to 2018, Newton’s last healthy season and the second-best passing campaign of his career. As detailed above, he rarely threw deep; instead, he was far more accurate than three seasons earlier, most notably on throws between one and ten yards downfield. Newton’s numbers on those passes were the best of his career: 75.3 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns and a 107.2 rating. His overall completion percentage of 67.9% – easily a career high – topped his 2015 figure by 8.1 points! The flashy MVP had morphed into a far more conservative, efficient passer.
What does this mean for Newton’s outlook as a passer with the 2020 Patriots? It’s tempting to compare him and Brady, the quarterback he hopes to replace as New England’s starter, and some of the numbers are surprising. In 2018, Newton, the running QB, threw only 27 passes outside the pocket; last year, the slow-footed Brady had 39 such attempts. Ironically, the more mobile QB is the one throwing fewer passes on the run.
Perhaps more importantly, the receivers Newton inherits from Brady don’t appear to be a great match for his skills. Edelman led the Patriots in receptions in 2019, and 69 of his 100 catches came when he was lined up in the slot. Passes to slot receivers are not a Newton strength. Two seasons ago, he threw two touchdown passes against six interceptions when targeting slot receivers; in 2017, he was intercepted a league-high eight times on such throws. That’s a total of 14 times that Newton was picked off when targeting slot receivers in ’17 and ’18, also the most in the league.
In his Carolina career, Newton’s favorite target was unquestionably tight end Greg Olsen. He hooked up with Olsen for 448 completions, more than twice as many times as he hit any other target (second was Steve Smith Sr. with 214). From 2011 through 2018, Newton and Olsen teamed up for the second-most completions and yards among quarterback-tight end duos – topped by only Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski. With Gronk sitting out last season before following Brady to Tampa Bay, New England’s tight ends caught an NFL-low 37 passes in 2019, certainly not what Cam is used to. The Pats did select a pair of tight ends in the third round of this year’s draft, leaving some hope that Newton and Devin Asiasi or Dalton Keene can recreate Newton-to-Olsen or perhaps even Brady-to-Gronkowski.
One thing that bodes well for Newton as a Patriot is the presence of James White. When he had a top pass-catcher in Christian McCaffrey coming out of the backfield in 2017 and 2018, Cam went to him often: they hooked up for 174 completions and 11 touchdowns, the most by any QB to an individual running back in that span. Over the past two seasons, White ranked third among NFL RBs in receptions (223) and first in TD catches (12).
If Newton is able to claim the starting QB role in Foxborough this fall, it’s easy to envision White as his go-to receiver.
Research support provided by Greg Gifford, Sam Hovland and Chase Weight.