With the NFL still on schedule for the start of camps, life after Tom Brady is about to begin in earnest.
At some point during the final week of July, or perhaps even a bit beyond, the Patriots will embark on their first training camp since 2000 without the GOAT on the premises.
While that prospect seemed dire at the outset, the outlook is much brighter than it was four months ago.
When Brady signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March, the focus turned to Jarrett Stidham, the presumed heir apparent.
Stidham was going to be the man taking over the huddle, with all of four NFL passing attempts on his resume. No one knew what to expect from the untested second-year quarterback.
But then, three weeks ago, Bill Belichick added a new player to the equation. That’s when initial word broke that the Patriots and Cam Newton had agreed on a 1-year deal.
Newton’s arrival sent shockwaves throughout the league, and with good reason. The Patriots had pulled off a potential coup, replacing one NFL MVP with another.
The free agent quarterback, who was initially dumped by Carolina, had few, if any, suitors out on the open market. That prompted him to take a bargain basement, prove-it-type deal to play with the six-time Super Bowl champions.
So now the Patriots have a quarterback who’s on a mission.
After an injury-riddled career, and all the rejection he experienced during the past few months, Newton is motivated to show he still has it at age 31. And, assuming he’s healthy, he will be the starter. He will adapt, and win the “competition” for the top spot with Stidham.
How does having Superman change expectations for the Patriots?
Answer: by leaps and bounds.
For the sake of argument, let’s quantify it.
Best-case scenario with Newton: The Patriots win their 12th consecutive AFC East crown, and go deep in the playoffs.
And that might be under-selling a tad.
Before Newton landed in Foxboro, projecting this kind of success really wasn’t in the cards with Stidham as the starter. While Stid the Kid impressed during camp and preseason last year, he’s still a novice who would probably benefit from more time as the understudy.
With Newton, if he’s the 2015 version of himself or even the early 2018 season quarterback, the sky’s the limit. While I won’t marry them to a Super Bowl appearance, they’re going to make noise and once again frighten prospective opponents. That’s the expectation that’s been created, and it’s legitimate.
Beyond having Newton spurred by getting revenge against all teams that passed on him in free agency, let’s not forget Belichick hasn’t left the building. And he’s motivated, too. He’s still in pursuit of Don Shula for all-time wins, and he’s also chasing the ghost of Brady. While he won’t say it publicly, it’s natural for him to want to show he can win without his celebrated partner in crime the past 20 years.
Ditto offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who would also like to prove his success doesn’t go hand-in-hand with having Brady as his quarterback.
Guard Greg Van Roten, who was on the Panthers with Newton the past three seasons, and now is with the Jets, summed up the Belichick-Newton union pretty succinctly during an interview with SiriusXM radio last week.
Said Van Roten of the new duo: “It’s definitely a recipe for disaster for the rest of the league if they can figure it out.”
While the Patriots, who had the NFL’s top defense last year, lost several players off that unit, Belichick won’t let it slip too far. He could patch it together like he always does and have the group peaking down the stretch.
Some of the new recruits (Adrian Phillips, Beau Allen) and draft picks (Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Kyle Dugger), who figure to replace some of the lost players, should contribute once they get up to speed.
As for Newton, he won’t be daunted by replacing a legend. It would be tougher for Stidham to fill those shoes, but not Newton.
He’s already expressed confidence about being able to do the job in a video for Odell Beckham’s YouTube page. Newton wasn’t afraid to talk about “the elephant in the room.”
“You’re getting a dog. And you’re getting one of these ticked-off dogs, too. And I’m looking at the schedule like, ‘Who we play? THAT team passed on me. OK. THAT team passed on me. They could’ve came and got me. They hollered at me.’”
One by one, Newton will want to take all of those teams down. And he has the coach, and team, to get the job done.
Worst-case scenario with Newton: They go 6-10, lose the AFC East, Newton stinks the joint up, gets hurt, or is simply a bust from the jump. Then Stidham assumes the starter’s job, and still isn’t ready for prime time.
Add in a bend-and-too-often breaking defense, and this would be a disaster.
So not only would the Patriots fall off the contender trail without Brady, but that scenario sets up little hope for the immediate future.
All of a sudden, the no-risk Newton move, which was essentially a roll of the dice, comes up craps. As in, Patriots lose.
It would be made even worse if Brady excels in Tampa, and the Bucs get to the Super Bowl. That’s a crushing double-whammy for Belichick and the Patriots. And it’s not out of the realm.
Newton’s penchant for injuries, not to mention the impact of those past injuries to his throwing shoulder and foot, create uncertainty. So does the pandemic, and the fallout in terms of having several new defensive players, along with Newton, and a cast of rookies, being able to learn the system with less on-field time.
More to the point, Newton just might not be a fit, or able to adapt.
Given that, the Patriots might fall short of their expected target.
Whether it was Belichick’s intention or not, the addition of Newton, even if it turns out to be for only a year, has rightfully ratcheted up hopes. While a seventh championship is a bit of a reach, Newton does provide a missing component at quarterback — proven credibility.
And while the Patriots did lose quite a few players in free agency, especially on defense, there was enough leftover to make believers out of the fan base. Plus, if anyone is equipped to handle the issues associated with a pandemic, it’s Belichick. If anything, he’ll be ahead of the curve when it comes to preparing the team. That alone, should put the Patriots in the hunt.
That’s why a losing record, and failing to make the playoffs, won’t be acceptable. Not by a long shot.