Last season after a thoroughly infuriating “if we had just scored some more points, we would’ve probably won the game” heartbreaker at the hands of the Denver Broncos, the man tasked with succeeding Tom Brady grimly noted that the excuse basket was running real low.
“For us, as an offense, we know that our excuse basket is running real low. We’re getting guys back that we missed for weeks. Even though we’re missing a couple other guys, we got enough to compete with anybody — and I mean, anybody.”
That was then. Now that excuse basket has been Baxter-punted off a bridge.
And as it frequently tends to go with the cards life deals you, after the New England Patriots went full double-espresso in free agency, the stakes then got raised again with a slew of trades that virtually guaranteed that out of the big-four quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft, three of them will be gone without a second’s hesitation by the time the Atlanta Falcons pick at No. 4.
(I mean, I guess it’s theoretically possible that the 49ers traded all the way up to pick No. 3 from No. 12 to give Jimmy G more weaponz with Kyle Pitts or Devonta Smith, but come on now. As a former also-slightly-undersized NFL great would probably say....child, please.)
So with that on the table, the chances of the Patriots drafting any of the top-five quarterbacks in the draft look increasingly grim, barring a freaking SEISMIC move by Bill Belichick to pony up into the top 10. Let’s put it this way; if we use our former fearless leader Rich Hill’s draft value chart, to trade up with the Cincinnati Bengals at pick No. 5 would take New England’s 2021 first-round pick (15), their second-round-pick (46), and their third-round comp pick at 96th overall. Which, truthfully, if you nail the quarterback pick, that’s pocket change to pay, but, well, you’ve seen how the NFL’s fared at evaluating quarterbacks since....forever.
It’s generally not pretty. Never mind the part where the Falcons may well draft a quarterback also, which in all likelihood would mean that one of either Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or McCorkle Jones is the only one still on the board.
All that is to say, barring said seismic move by the Patriots, it seems far more likely that the 2021 Patriots are going to be quarterbacked, at least initially, by Cam Newton.
Maybe New England tries another second-round project pick at quarterback and that guy rides the bench to learn the NFL game and the Patriots System™ until Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels decide they’re ready. Maybe the Patriots ignore the position altogether in the draft this year, like they did with wide receiver in last year’s apparently loaded draft class, and decide to stock up elsewhere and circle back to addressing quarterback next year. Or maybe, just maybe, Jarrett Stidham will take the miraculous leap that some of you still seem to think he’s capable of for some reason and knock Cam out of the top dog spot.
(Note: He won’t.)
All those reasons/excuses that people like me gave you about Cam’s passing performance last year, though? None of that is gonna fly in the 2021 season. You’ve heard them all. Let’s run ‘em down:
“He didn’t have a normal offseason/training camp/OTAs”
“The receivers and tight ends stink out loud”
“He got sick and got behind with the offense”
“The play-calling asked him to do things he wasn’t comfortable with”
“After a few weeks, smart teams figured out how to make him one-dimensional”
“Maybe his shoulder is acting up again?”
“Well if you look at (insert obscure EPA/DVOA/Adjusted Net Yards/Catchable Passes stat here), he actually wasn’t that bad!”
We can go on and on until the GoodellBot fines New England another draft pick for no reason at all again, but you get the idea.
How much you believed any or all of those situations was the case in 2020 is obviously up to you, but in 2021, none of ‘em are going to hold any more water than the Falcons deciding, “Hey we should probably keep throwing the ball and knock ourselves out of field goal range and not run the clock down when we have a 99.8% chance of winning THE SUPER BOWL. I see no way this plan could possibly go wrong.”
First, let’s talk about the offseason. Or, in Cam’s case last year, the lack of one.
The bombshell news about Cam Newton signing with the PATRIOTS dropped on June 28th, and while I think the reasonable take is that Cam and the Pats had almost certainly been working behind the scenes on getting a deal done for quite a while, possibly even before the 2020 draft, he didn’t actually cross the T’s and dot the lowercase J’s on his Patriots contract until July 8th. That means, even in a normal season, Newton would’ve been too late to participate in both the OTAs that Tom Brady famously religiously attended (until he didn’t) and the mandatory minicamp that’s typically held in early June.
Of course, like everything else in 2020, OTAs and minicamp both got canceled due to the Rona and teams had to conduct any offseason activities remotely. So the first time Cam had to actually throw footballs to his teammates was training camp. Newton would go on to bag the starting quarterback job almost immediately anyway. Still, the point remains that he missed a substantial chunk of a normal NFL offseason (remember those?), probably didn’t even get a playbook until somewhere around the 4th of July, and then was under center with a new offense and new bunch of teammates roughly 60 days later.
This year, not only does Cam Newton have that into-the-frying-pan experience under his proverbial belt, he’ll also have as close to a full-length, normal offseason as we can get in 2021. Meanwhile, the new skill-position guys and Jarrett Stidham were already working out together at Patriots West in California. Meaning they were already into learning The System™ as well.
Which is also a great way to jump into the elephant in the room with Cam’s infuriating passing performance in 2020; Cam may not have been perfect, but just look at those sorry receivers. Why the rookie tight ends barely saw any action all season is anyone’s guess, but as a general rule, when your 11-personnel grouping is Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry, Damiere Byrd, and (insert tight end here), what did you really expect?
The 2021 squad, though? This set of new offensive weapons may be stacked enough that if you told someone that this was any of the 32 NFL teams’ skill guys without specifying which team — not to mention a top-five offensive line — I’d bet you the rent they’d say, “Well of course the quarterback has to kick ass with THOSE guys. How could he not!”
Let’s start with the biggest sore spot on offense for the 2020 Patriots, the tight end room. The 2020 tight end group was easily the NFL’s worst by any metric, including your eyeball test. It was Jaguars-esque. And really, the Jaguars should be the ones laughing — at least Tyler Eifert caught more than one touchdown pass in 2020.
(He caught two. For comparison purposes, Ryan Izzo caught zero, and Eifert accumulated 349 receiving yards in 15 games compared to Izzo’s 199. So, yeah, when you’re behind the Jags, that should tell you how badly the Patriots needed to get their life together.)
Fast forward to present, though, and Bill Belichick didn’t just pony up for one of the premier tight ends in free agency — he went full night on the town, surf and turf, wine and dessert, and got both of them. And let’s put it this way; both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry are found in the end zone frequently enough that if you have even one fantasy football team, you know they’re both a pair of some of the only consistently awesome receiving tight ends in the sport.
Plus, while I tend to think that immediately assuming the Patriots are gonna get back into the heyday of Gronk and The One We Do Not Speak Of right from the get-go is somewhere between simplistic and just unrealistic, the simple fact remains that you can do a hell of a lot more with two legit tight ends than you can with zero.
And then Bill went ahead and spent a combined $48,500,000.00 on upgrading that wide receiver room with Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, neither of whom are making real WR1 money, but both gentlemen represent a serious shot in the arm. More size? Check. More speed? Check. More proven ability to make tough grabs over the middle? Also check (no offense to Jakobi).
Put simply, just from free agency additions alone, assuming none of them go Chad-Ochocinco-AWOL on us, this team has the weapons to hurt you downfield, no matter if they come out heavy or decide to spread ‘em out four wide. Especially if, as he proved with his rushing totals last year, Cam Newton can effectively function as his own checkdown by making a break for the sticks if the play just goes completely sideways.
Oh, and speaking of weaponz for a quarterback, how about trading for the man, the myth, the one-year Patriots legend Trent Brown and making sure longtime O-line rock David Andrews didn’t get away after all? And fortifying the offensive line with some depth by re-signing Teddy Karras? Even with the loss of Pro Bowl LG Joe Thuney to (BARF) the Kansas City Chiefs, Bill still has this line looking both stout, mean, and versatile. I guess that’s three things. Sue me. I like good offensive line play. It makes me happy.
Those guys all got the bag because they’ve proven they can ball at an extremely high level.
Cam’s back here now to prove that he still can. And if he can’t be productive in the passing game with that crew, then, well, as much as we like to say quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame.....that’s probably mostly on him.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots have given Cam Newton enough by way of investment, public faith, and “last year was unacceptable, so this year we go balls-out to fix it” to play at the high society table now. Cam should go into the 2021 NFL season with a full regular season under his belt and a full offseason to improve and grind in the gym and the film room. The new guys appear to be stoked to play with him and no doubt hungry to prove they’re worth the bag that they got. And Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and the rest of the offensive staff have a full offseason to get back in the lab and figure out what worked and what didn’t with the first real quarterback change in New England since the Bledsoe days.
Ah, almost forgot — there’s also the draft. Will New England add to the offensive side of the ball on draft day? Day Two? Day Three? All of the above? They usually do! Seems like a pretty safe bet that they will again!
As Cam knows full well from his Super Bowl run, though, once you get to a winner-take-all point, you still have to, uh, win. This time, he’s playing to show the world that, like he said on the I Am Athlete pod that was all over the place last month, he’s still a starting quarterback in the NFL.
And without being too dramatic, this may be his last shot to prove it.
Fortunately, this season, the Patriots have given him a solid Lord-of-the-Rings squad to get him there. Now it’s on Cam to get back to the level he says he knows he’s still got in him.