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Why players and coaches love Cam Newton, but Patriots fans don’t

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We take a deep dive into Cam Newton’s numbers and x-factors. They happen to be innumerable.

We take a deep dive into Cam Newton’s numbers and x-factors. They happen to be innumerable.
Illustration: AP

There is a deep Cam Newton divide in New England.

Patriots players and coaches all seem to love him. Patriots fans? Not so much.

Cam’s Patriots coaches, teammates, and new free-agent signings talk about a great quarterback who lacked the proper preparation having joined New England in late June, lacked practice reps with new teammates and lacked NFL starting-caliber receivers to succeed while battling COVID-19.

Patriots fans see “excuses.”

When your primary starting receivers were Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, N’Keal Harry, and Ryan Izzo, they’re damn good excuses.

“If Tom Brady couldn’t solve that group in 2019 (and Brady had a full season with Julian Edelman), writes USA Today’s Doug Farrar, “what chance did Newton have?”

That’s a great question. Has anyone answered it?

“In fairness to Cam, I’m not sure he had the proper weapons around him last year,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said last month, while also citing the impact catching COVID had on him and the team.

Newton’s health and supporting cast has now been upgraded, and preparation will not be a problem in 2021. Newton has wasted no time getting ready.

Cam spent last week at voluntary workouts throwing to a group of receivers that included newly signed Patriots Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, and Kendrick Bourne. In early April, he had a throwing session with Jakobi Myers and Gunner Olszewski in Boston. That came after “Pats West” workouts in California in March. Fresh off his Patriots signing, Nelson Agholor raved about Cam.

“Getting out there and practicing with him, and I’m just excited to work with him.” said Agholor. “I’m excited to grow. I know he’s going to push me.”

Quiet as it’s kept, Cam has been pushing everybody.

Teammate Jason McCourty says Cam arrives in the building at 5:30 AM every day before anyone.

“He’s in the building more than any player on the team,” said Belichick citing Cam’s “tremendous leadership.”.

“He spends a lot of time building relationships. It’s very impressive.”

“He studies. He works as hard as any player I’ve coached,” says OC Josh McDaniels, “He prepares hard for every practice, every session. There’s nothing else I could ask for as a coach.”

And players are excited as they practice with him. “Newton is a “great quarterback’ and “an amazing man”, says Agholor. “I am very excited”, said Hunter Henry. “He’s a hell of a guy”, says Jonnu Smith.

“I believe in Cam Newton. I think he’s going to ball out,” Bourne told reporters. “With the weapons they brought in…”

“Players on the team, in the locker room, really love the guy,” Kraft continued. “In the end, I trust Coach Belichick’s ability to build a team, and put the right players in the best position to succeed.”

Belichick is doing just that, especially at the tight end position where Cam had incredible success in Carolina throwing over the middle to Greg Olsen (see Part II below).

But masses of Patriots fans on Twitter and sports-talk radio disagree.

Many think Newton suddenly can’t throw a football (see Part IV below). One Boston radio host even ranted that Jacksonville Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew is better than Cam, who he called “a washed up has-been” … at 31 years old.

Now let’s just forget that the majority of 2020 playoff teams had QBs older than Cam, including five ages 37-43. Or that Cam just had one of his best seasons rushing, a fine measure for one’s vitality.

Let’s also pretend that none of the anti-Cam criticism is rooted in racial double-standards so often applied to Black QBs. Not because it’s not true. All NFL fan bases are littered with bigots.

But for the purposes of this article, let’s focus on many of the other unfair biases used against Cam: Like having to follow Tom Brady; or ignoring his terrible receivers; or the flawed “eye test;” or ignoring his historic rushing stats; or isolating his passing stats out of context.

And sometimes that’s hard to separate. Because when people keep writing that Cam threw for only eight TDs last year, but omit his 13 non-passing TDs (12 rushing, one receiving), it often feels like racial bias. The alternatives, blatant dishonesty or statistical malpractice, aren’t much better.

Either way, Cam’s critics love to misevaluate him, and none more than a hopelessly polluted Patriots fan base who think Super Bowl rings grow on trees.

Let’s look at the actual hard evidence — starting with Tom Brady.

PART I: CAM OUTPLAYED TOM BRADY’S 2nd HALF OF 2019

After throwing an interception on December 1, 2019, a visibly frustrated Brady would go off on his wide receivers on the sideline. Was Brady upset at poor route-running, play-call miscommunications, or other correctable mistakes?

Nope. Brady yelled this to his receivers: “We gotta be faster! Quicker! More explosive!”.

Brady was not wrong. But deep down he knows these aren’t traits receivers can change.

So in 2020, Brady found faster and quicker receivers in Tampa. He also left behind an irresistible storyline:

The Fantasy: “Brady went 12-4 with the Patriots in 2019. Then Cam stunk it up, and The GOAT won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay. If only the Pats had re-signed Brady!”

The Reality: If Brady had returned, the Patriots would still have missed the playoffs, and many Pats fans would’ve blamed Brady’s age and called for his retirement. Some already were in 2019. Let’s look closer:

Tom Brady’s 2019 Passer Rating

95.0 first 8 games (8-0)

78.5 last 9 games (4-5) including playoff loss

Wow. What happened?

Tom’s first eight games were highlighted by the Patriots No. 1 defense, and the NFL’s softest schedule. But in the second half, opponents got tougher, and the team parted ways with their field-spreader Josh Gordon after their sixth game — leaving less space — and just Julian Edelman as the team’s only starting-caliber receiver.

So Tom Brady wisely jumped a sinking ship.

In Tampa, Brady could even throw three ugly interceptions on consecutive drives in a playoff game, and still win that game. That’s not happening on the 2020 Patriots, for Cam or Tom.

The Reality: Cam Newton actually outplayed Brady’s second half of 2019.

Neither had much luck finding open receivers, but Cam was able to add a phenomenal rushing season (see Part V).

Cam’s Patriots still managed to go 7-8, and were three arbitrary plays away from going 10-5.

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Image: Getty Images

PART II: CAM’S NEW TIGHT ENDS SHOULD THRIVE WITH HIM

POP QUIZ: Who was the first Tight End in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards for three consecutive seasons?

  • 1980s: Kellen Winslow with Dan Fouts?
  • 1990s: Shannon Sharpe with John Elway?
  • 2000s: Antonio Gates with Philip Rivers?
  • 2010s: Rob Gronkowski with Tom Brady?

None of the above.

The answer is Greg Olsen from 2014-2016. Olsen became Cam’s primary receiving target over the middle of the field.

Newton’s success with Olsen was the cornerstone of the Panthers’ offense, and don’t be surprised if Belichick watched more Newton-to-Olsen tape than Patriots fans before signing Smith and Henry.

“Obviously, Cam and I have had a lot of success together,” Olsen told the Riot Report in 2019. “when we played every game together, there wasn’t anybody better than us. That’s just the reality of it. He’s been great for my career.”

Cam’s chemistry with Olsen was built over non-stop reps, lots of film-study, and a bond that extended off the field, a process Cam has already begun with his new Patriots receivers.

Prior to joining the Panthers, Olsen spent four years with the Chicago Bears. From 2013-2016 with Cam, Olsen would double his Bears yardage. While Henry is more developed than Smith as a pass-catcher, many believe Jonnu Smith was “the perfect signing” for Cam, and can mirror a similar career leap as Olsen.

Henry, Smith, and Cam are also in great hands with Belichick who had great success running a two-tight end set with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez from 2010-2012.

“I’ve said before, he’s the best thing that ever happened to my career,” Olsen said of Cam last month. “He made me a better player.”

History says Cam will make Smith and Henry better players too.

PART III: CAM MAKES RECEIVERS BETTER

It’s not just Olsen and tight ends. Cam makes wide receivers better, too. It’s just hard to notice because he so rarely gets good ones.

Julian Edelman instantly became the second-best wide receiver Cam ever had. Despite sharing only two games with mutual health, the two were building a very nice chemistry, punctuated by Edelman’s career-high 179 yards in Week 2 against the Seahawks. Yes, career-high, more yards in that game than in over 100 games with Brady. Had Edelman caught Cam’s perfectly-thrown pass to win that game, and avoided injury, it’s a different season.

The brief Cam-Edelman connection is a window into a Patriots future with starting wide receivers.

No great QB this past decade has had worse receivers than Newton. Cam’s highest-passing-yard totals still come from his first two seasons with veteran Pro Bowler Steve Smith. As a rookie, Kelvin Benjamin gained 1,000 yards with Cam, but then tore his ACL.

In his uninjured Panther prime, Cam had Ted Ginn, Devin Funchess, and Benjamin, as his No.1 WRs. That’s a football crime.

Cam once went 15-1 and made it to the Super Bowl with Ginn and Corey Brown as his primary starting wide receivers. That’s a football miracle.

And then there’s this:

19 TDs – Ted Ginn’s three seasons with Cam Newton

14 TDs – Ted Ginn’s 11 seasons with five other teams (including three with Drew Brees)

Cam Newton even made Ted Ginn better.

This is what Cam did with a deep threat, even a flawed one at that. Instead of receiver upgrades, he has been expected to pull rabbits out of his ass ever since. With Agholor as a new spread-the-field deep threat, Cam’s success with Ginn is worth recalling.

Add Bourne in the slot, Jakobi Myers as a No. 3 WR, and the new tight ends, and it’s the best total receiving corps of Newton’s career, especially if the Pats draft another deep-threat wide receiver with a high pick today or tomorrow.

Agholor and Bourne won’t be confused for Randy Moss and Wes Welker, but for Newton, they may as well be.

Smith or Henry aren’t Rob Gronkowski or Olsen, but combined with Cam, they very well could be.

PART IV: THE “CAM-CAN’T-THROW” ILLUSION

“This one line, this one criticism, that’s been repeated so many times that it’s seemingly coming to be accepted as truth,” writes Michael Hurley of CBS Boston.

“Turn on the radio, and you hear it from the hosts and the callers. Fire up Twitter, and you’ll see it 16 times in the replies to any tweets mentioning the Patriots’ additions at offensive skill positions. That line? It’s some variation of this: No additions matter if Cam is just going to throw the ball into the dirt every play.”

Ahhhh, the good ole “eye test”, a time-honored favorite of every local fan in every city. “You didn’t watch all the games,” they love to say. Case closed.

In his video-laden breakdown, Hurley separates facts from feelings reminds Patriots fans that Cam completed 65.8 percent of his passes in 2020, a superior mark to Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and most starting NFL QBs, nearly all who had far superior receivers.

Even in terrible losses, closer video breakdowns by USA Today’s Steven Ruiz show that Cam wasn’t remotely the problem, but rather mostly receivers’ inability to create separation. Ask Tom Brady about that.

If Cam is nowhere close to throwing the ball into the dirt “every play,” why do so many Pats fans feel that way?

Cam had a higher propensity to miss his throws low into the ground — a cardinal sin for the “eye-test” crowd. Yes, it’s often ugly. To the naked eye, it’s the visceral equivalent of three incompletions, but it still only counts as one.

Donovan McNabb suffered this unfair criticism his entire career despite the fact his low throws into the dirt contributed to his low interception rate (unlike high-sailing throws which can be more easily picked).

These are facts. If your “eye test” of ugly throws is not backed by actual stats (see Tim Tebow 47.9 career completion rate), don’t blame Cam for your own blurry vision. Or for his bad receivers.

As for legitimate concerns about Cam’s continued recovery from past shoulder and foot injuries, quarterback mechanics guru and former MLB pitching coach Tom House recently explained how the natural process of rebuilding his throwing mechanics was interrupted by COVID last year.

“Cam will throw the football better this year than he did last year.” said House “Don’t bet against him.”

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Image: AP

PART V: CAM IS ALSO A TOP NFL RUNNING BACK

POP QUIZ: Of the players below, who has rushed for the most career rushing touchdowns?

  • O.J. Simpson
  • Thurman Thomas
  • Larry Csonka
  • Michael Vick and John Elway combined
  • Cam Newton

It’s Cam with 70 career rushing TDs and the next closest QB is Steve Young at 43.

Cam is an incomparable QB, as most basic and advanced stats fail him, and isolating his passing stats without integrating his rushing stats is like assessing Willie Mays the player, but ignoring his fielding. Except much worse. Cam’s mixture of size, power and speed, make him a unique weapon unmatched by any QB before him, and only emulated by the Bills’ Josh Allen since.

How incredible was Cam’s rushing in 2020? He rushed for more TDs than three entire teams.

His 12 rushing TDs doubled the total of Ezekiel Elliot, and was only surpassed by Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Alvin Kamara. Not bad for a quarterback.

Cam rushed for 55 first downs last year, a total only surpassed by nine running backs, and Lamar Jackson (56). That’s more rushing 1st downs than Brady, Big Ben, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Nick Foles, Aaron Rodgers, and young, spritely Daniel Jones… combined.

What if Cam rushed for only three first downs like Big Ben, but threw for the other 52 instead? Wouldn’t that same exact production boost his eye-test perception? Of course it would. But Cam’s critics judge the process, not the production.

Cam’s 2020 passer rating was 82.9, but jumps to 97.0 when his rushes and 13 non-passing TDs are counted as pass attempts. Now imagine with real receivers?

Cam has meaningful, high-quality, and high-efficiency runs — the kind that moves chains and wins games.

In 2020, he got a 1st down in over 40 percent of his rushing attempts — highest in the NFL.

And then this amazing 1st down stat:

2020 Top Rushers on 3rd and Short (min 15 carries);

  • 95% Gus Edwards (19/20)
  • 94% Cam Newton (16/17)
  • 81% Derrick Henry (13/16)
  • 73% Ezekiel Elliot (11/15)
  • 73% D. Montgomery (11/15)
  • 71% Dalvin Cook (12/17)

Wow. Note the Pro Bowl running back company. With an amazing 94 percent rate on third and short (< 3 yds), Cam was literally doubling as Derrick Henry in the backfield.

But you won’t hear these stats on sports-talk radio. “Cam sucks” gets higher ratings.

And some Patriots fans really want to give up on Cam in order to re-sign Jimmy G?

“I really do believe Cam getting COVID, and what it did to the team, it changed a lot,” said Kraft. “Now we’ll get a chance to see.”

Should the Patriots follow through on Kraft’s words, it would be an NFL rarity: A Black QB with no support after a questionable season getting another “chance to see” — plus actual support.

Last year was “the perfect storm in the wrong direction,” says House of Cam’s bad-luck 2020. “I’m looking at the perfect storm in the right direction this year.”

If House is right, the Patriots’ franchise quarterback could be sitting on their roster right now.

And it’s OK if Patriots fans disagree — but it’s a sports crime to not want to find out.



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