The passes skipped. The sacks got taken. The question no longer was if Bill Belichick should pull Cam Newton, but why hadn’t he already. If not for performance reasons, then humanitarian.
Watching the NFL’s one-time Superman stagger about Monday was like seeing an aged boxer get into the ring one time too many. There was no puncher’s chance here, just Buffalo humiliating Newton and New England, 38-9, sealing the Patriots’ first losing season since 2000.
If you were looking for a big, strong quarterback running and throwing all over Foxborough, it was Josh Allen over on the Bills.
Neither the lost game nor lost season was all Newton’s fault. Not even close. Given the weak receivers and non-existent tight end production, he deserves some sympathy. There is a reason Tom Brady bailed on this roster.
"Cam did a good job for us. I mean, that wasn't the problem," Belichick said.
Well, he isn’t solving the problem either.
Against the Bills, Newton was just 5 for 10 for 34 yards, and for the ninth time this year he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. He rushed for a TD, but also took two sacks Monday. He oversaw three three-and-outs.
That glorious 2015 season when he led Carolina to the Super Bowl and was named league MVP looks deeper and farther in the rearview mirror.
Newton is just 31, but no NFL team wanted him when he hit the free-agent market last spring. Months passed before the salary-cap strapped, Brady-less Pats took him on the cheap via a one-year deal.
Newton’s future is even bleaker now. It’s worth wondering if a guy who briefly ran this league will ever start another game in it.
Belichick has clung to Newton all season, even as his play cratered after a bout with COVID-19 and never really recovered. With nothing to play for Monday against the Bills, Belichick still started Newton rather than give second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham a look. His reasoning was that Cam gave the team its best chance to win.
There is no way that carries over into 2021. Draft a quarterback. Sign a quarterback. Develop a quarterback. Whatever respect Belichick has for Newton has been paid in full.
Newton is a free agent, and if the Pats aren’t going to re-sign him, then who would?
And if not, would Newton accept a backup role somewhere for another low-money deal? On Monday he looked exhausted and sounded frustrated. He has been away from his children for months, and not even an admirable work ethic and a team-first attitude has produced much.
“It’s extremely frustrating knowing what you're capable of but it's just not showing when it counts the most,” Newton said. “… I've sacrificed so much this year and it hurts when you have the outing that you had tonight ...
“I’m more or less venting,” he acknowledged.
With his money and his legacy, does he try this again? Has he done enough to earn that chance?
“That’s not for me to answer,” Newton said. “I don’t care about [a] contract. I just want to win.”
In 2015, Newton threw for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more. He was often the biggest, fastest, most unstoppable player on the field. His Panthers went 17-1 before losing in the Super Bowl but even then Cam looked like the future of the league.
Instead, he never won another playoff game, losing his lone postseason appearance in 2018. In the other four non-playoff seasons, including this campaign, he lost more games as a starter than he won.
Newton’s career burned brilliant and bright, just not for long. He took hellacious beatings. Injuries built up. Reaction times slowed. It’s hard counting on running legs when you’re the wrong side of 30.
At his best, he was nearly unbeatable.
His best was a long time ago.
Yet if you want to see his impact on the game, look no further than Allen, an MVP candidate in his third season.
When Newton arrived in 2011, he was unlike just about anything the NFL had ever seen — a 6-foot-5, 245 pound runner/passer. Allen is, himself, listed at 6-5 and 237. Once upon a time, a guy that big would be told to plant himself in the pocket and chuck it. Not after Cam.
Instead, Allen is a mobile, scrambling, rambling, occasionally shoulder-lowering runner. He has also, like Newton, found a way to prove he wasn’t just an athlete by improving as a passer — his completion percentage rising from 52.8 percent as a rookie to its current 69.1 percent.
Allen is now good enough that one of the postgame storylines was Belichick’s apparent off-camera comment to the ESPN broadcast crew that he hadn’t “bought into” Allen as an elite player.
“I don’t know what they said,” Belichick said. “... I’ve said multiple times that Josh Allen is a good football player and he played well and he’s having a good year.”
He’s playing Cam Newton football. Mobile at a size where it doesn’t seem possible. Accurate from an arm that wasn’t always. Mostly winning and winning big.
Belichick and Newton gambled they could team up and deliver one more season, at least, like that. The effort was there. The work was put in.
It didn’t materialize.
And if this was the last the NFL sees of Cam Newton, starting quarterback, then don’t let a dispiriting performance at the end of a depressing season cloud the memories of just how great, and impactful, he once was.
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