Cam Newton, Patriots eye opportunity for reinvention in 2020

Before he had taken even one snap in the NFL, Cam Newton proclaimed himself not just a football player, but an entertainer and an icon. He was not wrong. Newton launched the Carolina Panthers from irrelevance to the Super Bowl, becoming the MVP of the league with a dazzling and aggressive running style that predated the current vogue for multidimensional quarterbacks. He crafted a Superman persona for himself, pretending to rip open his Clark Kent shirt for an end-zone celebration and alighting on press conferences and red carpets in sartorial splendor that made him a crossover star.

Alas, they do not usually speak aloud of entertainers and icons around Gillette Stadium, which makes the new marriage of Newton and the Patriots perhaps the most intriguing quarterback situation this side of Tampa Bay.

Tom Brady is an icon, of course, and those six Lombardi Trophies provided plenty of entertainment. There’s been no absence of ego and pride in New England, either, though they are shrouded in quotes as bland as a gray hoodie. But Newton’s arrival, coupled with an exodus of opt-outs ahead of yesterday’s deadline, has introduced a new unpredictability into the franchise that has been absent for nearly two decades. It has only magnified the hope invested in Newton that he can smooth the transition from Brady to … life after Brady for the Patriots.

This is a moment of transition for Newton, too. For most of the offseason, Newton was the discarded superstar, waiting on the open market for months through free agency and the draft after he was released by Carolina. His veteran minimum contract was so shocking for someone with his resume that Richard Sherman called it “disgusting.” The Patriots and Newton, then, have more in common than it would appear on the surface — they are both trying to rebuild and prove themselves, for the Patriots the first time since Brady became the starter in 2001, for Newton the first time since he was playing for Blinn College prior to his Heisman-winning season at Auburn.

If you were expecting Newton to tamp down his personality to fit the most buttoned-down team in the NFL, it hasn’t happened in the first week since players reported to camp. He rejected the idea that he has not had to compete for a starting job since college — players compete every day, no matter how much they are paid — and in the process revealed a glimpse of the pride and charisma that has marked his entire career.

“I don’t have to prove nothing, especially not to nobody,” Newton said Friday, in his first meeting with reporters since he signed with the Patriots. “I have to prove to myself, that’s a daily challenge. And I don’t think nobody’s expectations will ever surpass my expectations for myself.”

The expectations for Newton depend on which version of him you remember best. When he is healthy, he is easily a top-10 quarterback, blessed with size, speed, a strong arm and a willingness to play with abandon. His MVP season was just five years ago, when he threw 35 touchdown passes and ran for 10 more. But memories are short in the NFL and while a new generation of quarterbacks that play like him have come to dominate the league, Newton was all but forgotten as injuries limited him to playing a full 16 games only once in the last four seasons. Worse, he lost his last eight starts, appearing physically diminished as shoulder and foot injuries limited him. He was the opposite of Brady, looking older than his years (Newton is just 31). 

That it ended so ignominiously in Carolina, and that teams like the Chargers, Jaguars and Bears all passed on him, has clearly stuck with Newton. 

“I wake up mad,” he said. “The fact I’m not able to see my kids on a regular basis, that’s what makes me mad. I’m not going to dwell on the past. I’m a self-motivator. Even though the past is the past, I’m not going to keep looking back. For me, it’s turn the page and move forward.”

That means learning calculus, the word that stuck out to Newton from a conversation he had with Julian Edelman about what the Patriots’ famously complex offense is like. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be watched closely in 2020 as this is a bit of a reinvention for him, too. He finally has a mobile quarterback to design an offense for and, as with the Patriots in general, this season could allow everyone to know who sinks or swims without Brady.

McDaniels has had experience without Brady — when Matt Cassel had to take over after Brady’s knee injury in 2008, when Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett had to play during Brady’s four-game suspension in 2016, when Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow played for him in Denver. But Newton presents McDaniels with something of a post-Brady blank slate, and on Friday he told reporters that the challenge is to adapt his system to the talents of the players he has. The Patriots have long shape-shifted, even from game to game, but McDaniels said he will have to be careful to evaluate whether the offense is good at something or if McDaniels just really wants it to be good at something, when he should instead move on. McDaniels said he and the offensive coaching staff have talked about making adjustments, and he gave an example of what the conversations may soon sound like. 

“Let’s be real with ourselves,” McDaniels said. “Yeah, we used to be good at that. We’re not hot at that, so let’s change.”

Bill Belichick has been careful not to single out Newton this week, explaining repeatedly that the Patriots haven’t done much football during this long ramp-up period. But Newton’s competition is journeyman Brian Hoyer and second-year player Jarrett Stidham. If Newton is healthy — and he said “I’m full go” when asked if he has any limitations — he will almost certainly be the starter. 

Newton, though, admitted that he thought of many potential outcomes — doubts, surely — during his long wait for a job, and he used it as fuel. The aforementioned Chargers, Jaguars and Bears all passed on him, although none had an obvious starter who is more talented than Newton. Newton is a dynamic personality to whom players gravitate — it is hard to imagine he would not have won the starting job for any of those teams had he signed with them. 

Instead, he is in New England and preparing to fill the shoes of a legend. The player who came to be known in Carolina nearly as much for his brooding and pouting as he did for his on-field heroics, is giddy again. One icon left New England, another has arrived.

“I’m still constantly — I don’t want to say disbelief at this point in time — it’s a surreal moment,” Newton said. “Nobody really knows how excited I am just to be part of this organization. Just following up such a powerful dynasty with so much prestige. For me, I think this opportunity, I wake up pinching myself each and every day. I don’t know when that moment is going to be, but I’m going to keep doing what I’m supposed to do while I’m a member of the Patriots so that it will click that this is the norm.”

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @JudyBattista.

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