With the New England Patriots signed Cam Newton to a one-year free agency contract, they added a quarterback with a different skillset than the one they previously had: Tom Brady, despite his status as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, was a proverbial statue in the pocket and incapable of challenging defenses with anything else than his arm and his mind. Newton may not be on the same level as the future Hall of Famer in both areas, but he does add another dimension due to his athleticism.
The 31-year-old may no longer be on the same level as he was earlier in his career when he led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl and was named the league’s MVP, but he is still an intriguing dual-threat quarterback because of his size in combination with his general athletic skillset. If Newton is fully healthy — which is the big question after multiple surgeries on his throwing shoulder and ending 2019 on injured reserve — Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could have plenty of fun with the former first overall draft pick.
How could the veteran play-caller adapt his unit to fit Newton, though? Let’s start by taking a look at one of the most unique games of the Patriots’ dynastic run, the 2016 regular season matchup with the Houston Texans. That game saw New England rely on its third-string quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, with Tom Brady suspended and Jimmy Garoppolo having been ruled out due to a shoulder injury suffered the previous week. Brissett offered a different skillset than Brady and Garoppolo, and McDaniels reacted accordingly.
The zone read
Let’s start by taking a look at the Patriots’ first offensive play of the game. While it did not gain any positive yardage, the team made its intentions clear that it would try to win on the ground rather than through the air without Brady and Garoppolo:
With Brissett (#7) in a shotgun alignment and LeGarrette Blount (#29) off-set to his right, the play-call asked for a hand-off and a run to the offensive right behind lead-blocker Shaq Mason (#69) pulling from his right guard position. The Patriots did not use it that way based on the quarterback’s motions, but this concept can be used as the basis of a play that could become a staple with Newton in the lineup: the zone read that basically gives the QB the option to either hand the football off or keep it and advance it himself.
Carolina, just like New England did with Brissett under center, used zone read concepts quite a bit when it had Newton. The following play from the team’s 2018 season opener against the Dallas Cowboys is a good example of that:
The basic formation itself is similar to the one the Patriots used on the play above: the quarterback aligns in shotgun with the running back — in this case Christian McCaffrey (#22) — next to him. At the snap, Newton extends the football to possibly hand it off, but he simultaneously is reading Cowboys weak-side off-the-ball linebacker Sean Lee (#50) to determine the most favorable matchup on the play: is it better to give the football to McCaffrey or to keep it relative to where Lee is moving and possibly creating an opening.
On this particular play, Newton opts to keep the football once he sees Lee motioning towards the middle of the field. The result was impressive: the quarterback carried the football 23 yards and broke a pair of tackles on his way to the Dallas 13-yard line.
Zone read elements put pressure on a defense to play fundamentally sound and respect the quarterback as a ball carrier. The Patriots did not have that with Brady or Garoppolo, but they did when Brissett was asked to make his first career start. McDaniels did leave the training wheels on a bit — something he would not do with Newton in the lineup.
The triple option
When using Brissett against the Texans, the Patriots tried to make life easy on him by throwing multiple odd looks as the defense. One of them was the triple option as illustrated by the following play. While ended up gaining only one yard for the offense, it is a concept that could make a comeback with Newton under center:
The Patriots again align with Brissett in a shotgun formation and Blount to his right — effectively setting the scene for a zone read play. McDaniels did add another element to it, however, by also giving his young quarterback the option to pitch the football to the third backfield player, wide receiver Julian Edelman (#11), after making the first call. For Brissett those calls were based on the defensive end either moving into the formation or away from it, and on the alignment of the play-side linebacker.
The patience of future Patriot John Simon (#51) decided the play in Houston’s favor, but the concept itself is a dangerous one if all three of the players involved are threats to carry the football. Brissett was, even though gained just a yard on this play, and so is Cam Newton.
The run-pass option
There is probably no play in the league that better exemplifies the trend towards athletic quarterbacks that are threats both through the air and on the ground than the run-pass option. RPO concepts have been prominently features as part of numerous offensive attacks in the late 2010s — from the Kansas City Chiefs’ to the Philadelphia Eagles’ to the Baltimore Ravens’ — but the Patriots have only sparingly added them to their arsenal with Brady under center.
Essentially, they work like the zone read calls mentioned above but with a built-in passing opportunity: the zone read is a running play, the RPO features the option to also throw a pass from it despite the offensive line blocking as if for a run. New England did not incorporate it into its attack with Brissett under center in 2016, but it could become a major element within the offense now that Newton has been added. The ex-Panther, after all, has some experience running RPOs.
Take this play from last year’s season opener against the Los Angeles Rams as an example:
As can be seen, the offensive line plows forward as if run-blocking for Alexander Armah (#40). Newton, however, decides not to hand off the football and instead keeps it to throw to tight end Greg Olsen (#88) down the seam. The RPO concept and the flow of the line forced the defense to shift towards the weak side of the formation which in turn opened up space in the middle of the field for Newton and Olsen to exploit.
The implementation of RPO-based play calls should be expected in New England no matter if Newton wins the starting quarterback job or second-year man Jarrett Stidham does. The ex-Panther, however, does have a lot more experience successfully executing them, which means that he would be tailor-made to run RPO and zone read concepts.
The empty set
Besides introducing run-based elements into their offense that employ the quarterback as a potential ball-carrier, New England also could opt to use empty formations in order to put more pressure on the defense: it does have to respect Newton as a between-the-tackles-runner, but it also needs to account for the skill position talent spread out wide. This, in turn, might create favorable matchups for either the QB himself or for one of his five receiving options.
Just look at this play from the Panthers’ 2018 season against the Detroit Lions:
The Lions aligned in a nickel defense with five front-seven defenders on the field to account for the spread look presented by Carolina. With those five men needed to account for Newton as a ball-carrier, the Panthers found one-on-ones across the board — plus a deep safety shaded to the trips-side of the original 3x2 look — and took advantage of it: Newton completed his pass for 14 yards to wide receiver Jarius Wright (#13) to convert this 3rd-and-5 situation.
Had Detroit opted to attack the down differently and drop more players into coverage, Newton may have had a tougher time finding an open receiver but could have had a lane to run through and get to the first down marker. Later during the same drive, such a situation occurred. While the Panthers’ quarterback gained only two yards on the following play, the idea behind the empty look is the same — it makes the defense pick its poison:
As can be seen, the Lions use only four rushers this time, which opens a gap for Newton to exploit. He is unable to make an up-field cut but can escape the pocket to create a difficult situation for the defense. Detroit plays the down well and limits the play’s gain to a comparative minimum, though.
Having a player like Newton and running empty formations is a difficult matchup for a defense, however, and one that could make life easier for a team like the Patriots, who struggled to get their receivers open in 2018. Adding Newton to the equation could help with that, because he has to make the defense respect the run element as well. If anything, New England’s offense has become a lot less predictable.