Down 24-21 to the Buffalo Bills with just over four minutes left in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the New England Patriots offense took the field to do what they’d done what’s felt like 100 times since 2001: win the game on a final drive.
Over the next 12 plays, Cam Newton drove the team downfield, using both his arm and legs to convert down after down. With about 40 seconds left in regulation, facing second-and-10 from the Bills’ 19-yard line, Newton took the snap, sprinted toward the left side of the field, found an opening in the Buffalo defense and finished off what looked like a 5-yard gain to put the team in better position to win with a touchdown rather than a game-tying field goal attempt.
But then Bills defensive tackle Justin Zimmer threw a right hook at Newton’s right hand, connecting with the football, sending it fumbling toward the outstretched hands of Zimmer’s teammate, Dean Marlowe.
Game over. Another Patriots loss. The fourth straight for a team that hasn’t lost four straight since former President George W. Bush’s first year in office.
Sitting at 2-5, the Patriots now finally look like the AFC East teams they’ve beaten up for the better part of two decades. And with Newton, who finished the game 15-of-25 for 174 yards with 54 rushing yards and a rushing score, struggling the past three weeks, and being the reason they lost on Sunday, the questions are getting louder on whether the former MVP will make it to Week 17 as the team’s starter.
After Sunday’s loss, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked, as he was after last week’s blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers, if he would consider benching Newton.
“Cam’s our quarterback,” Belichick responded. “Been that way all year.”
For one of the most electric quarterbacks in recent NFL history, there should be no question whether Newton should be the starter for the Patriots.
Sunday’s final drive is a perfect illustration of why any questioning is absurd. The fumble aside (a major caveat, but keep in mind it was his first lost fumble of the season), Newton was that final drive. He accounted for 72% (23 passing, 24 rushing) of the team’s 65 yards on that drive.
Not a soul who watched Sunday’s game could come away with the conclusion that Newton doesn’t give the Patriots the best chance to win games. He’s still dangerous as a runner, particularly in the red zone. He still has a lot of zip on his passes. But as a wise woman once said, Newton can’t throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.
And the Patriots have that very problem, not to mention a defense that is a shell of itself from last season.
Newton plays behind one of the worst pass-blocking offensive lines in the league. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots’ line ranks 23rd in pass protection, allowing the 11th-highest adjusted sack rate through Week 7; Newton was sacked twice on Sunday. (They have one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the league.)
The team’s receiving corps is a far cry from the days of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Not a single Patriots receiver or tight end ranks in the top 50 (minimum 28 receptions through Week 7) in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average pass-catcher rankings. Edelman, Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry – Newton’s top options, two of whom did not play against the Bills – have played at or below replacement-level this season.
As was the case in 2019, New England receivers continue to struggle to get open. Harry (3.0 yards, ranked 51st) is the lone Patriots receiver to rank in the top 75 in average separation from the closest defender, according to Next Gen Stats. By comparison, Tom Brady has three such pass-catchers in Tampa Bay, with a fourth, receiver Mike Evans, ranking 79th. As noted by ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss, each of Newton’s options at receiver on Sunday was once an undrafted free agent.
The New England defense, as can be expected, isn’t the dominant force it was last season when it almost single-handedly guided the team to an 8-0 start. Through the first seven games of last season, the defense ranked first in points allowed per game (6.9). Through the first seven games of 2020, the unit has dropped to 12th (23.9). The offense hasn’t helped, going from averaging 31.9 points per game (first) with Brady through seven games down to 19.4 (29th) this season, but having a dominant defense masks offensive struggles.
Taking into account attrition and free agency, a decline in production was expected. But the Patriots’ problems have been compounded by both injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the start of the season, eight players, including starters Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Marcus Cannon, opted out of the season, the most of any team. Since then, Newton and defensive back Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 defensive player of the year, have tested positive for COVID-19. On top of that, Gilmore missed Sunday’s game due to a knee injury. Starting running back Sony Michel was placed on injured reserve last month. Backup running back James White missed two games due to the death of his father. Edelman and Harry both missed Sunday’s game, with Edelman, the team’s leading receiver since 2013, expected to miss significant time due to knee surgery.
But make no mistake, Newton’s production over the last three games has been indefensible.
After completing over 68% of his passes for 714 yards and rushing for 149 yards with six total touchdowns and two interceptions through the first three weeks – numbers that rivaled Brady’s in Tampa Bay – he hasn’t looked the same since returning from his COVID-19 diagnosis. There’s no defending the Denver or San Francisco games; Newton was just flat-out bad. Against Buffalo, he completed just 60% of his passes, and for the fourth time this season didn’t pass for a touchdown.
But 2-5 could easily be 5-2. Newton got stuffed at the goal line against Seattle in Week 2. In Week 6, miscommunication between Newton and Harry led to an incompletion on fourth down with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter of an 18-12 loss to Denver. Against the Bills, he likely would have completed a game-winning drive if not for the fumble. If “if” were a fifth, though.
Through it all, Newton has accepted responsibilities for his turnovers and mistakes, calling his fumble on Sunday “unacceptable.”
That being said, Newton has played the best anyone in his position could have in four of the six games he started this season. He’s the team’s leading passer and rusher, and has even caught a pass. Newton’s six rushing touchdowns rank fifth among all players this season. The reports of his decline are greatly exaggerated.
Newton hasn’t been the 2015 version of himself, but few quarterbacks in NFL history could achieve or replicate that; it’s like expecting Michael Jackson to make another Thriller. But Newton’s still the best option the Patriots have and would be the best option for more than half of the teams in the league. Newton just happens to play on one of the worst offenses and, unlike Brady in 2019, can’t be bailed out by an otherworldly defense.
The Patriots would be 0-7 right now without Newton. Only Aaron Rodgers – and Brady – have done more with less. We take for granted that 2015 season, when Newton turned a ragtag bunch into the No. 1 offense in the league and dragged them to a 15-1 record and the Super Bowl. Asking him to do that again with five more years of mileage on his body, with a worse supporting cast, with a relatively worse defense, was asking Newton to be Superman.
The conversation about Newton’s job security feels like giving credibility to the type of people who believe that Newton is not (or never was) a starter-worthy quarterback, or that he needed to be humbled after being released by Carolina in March. The type of people who believed the choice between Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker was the “toughest call in football.” The type of people who believed Kyle Allen was a better option in Carolina. The type of people who believed there was a training camp battle when Newton signed in New England.
Black quarterbacks, particularly Newton, aren’t given the opportunity to have a few bad games, though Sunday’s game wouldn’t be considered “bad.” Washington has beaten only the hapless Dallas Cowboys after prematurely benching Dwayne Haskins this season. The “Nathan Peterman Game” only happened because the Bills benched Tyrod Taylor. Starting Lamar Jackson over Joe Flacco in the 2018 playoffs was a mistake because the Ravens lost. If the Patriots want the best chance to win, Newton is the obvious choice. If the Patriots want to be in a position to draft their next quarterback, a 2-5 record helps that, too. If the Patriots want to see what 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham has, why sign Newton in the first place?
Stidham couldn’t beat out Brian Hoyer to be Newton’s backup in training camp. He couldn’t supplant Hoyer when Newton was diagnosed with COVID-19. When Stidham replaced Hoyer in the Week 4 game against Kansas City, he threw two second-half interceptions, the second of which was returned for a touchdown. Stidham was the same guy who in September 2019 replaced Brady in mop-up duty, proceeded to throw a pick-six and was promptly replaced by Brady.
The Patriots are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for just the third time since 2001, and Newton’s play can be attributed to this predicament. There’s no explanation for his change in play from the first few weeks of the season, though his COVID-19 diagnosis cannot be ignored.
But no matter what the Patriots are playing for – a winning record, the playoffs, the future – Newton is the only choice that makes sense.
Any suggestion otherwise feels shortsighted at best and ignorant at worst.