FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quarterback Cam Newton has a large chip on each of his large shoulders this season, the result of an 86-day wait in NFL free agency in which he wondered if he would be playing for anyone in 2020.
That led him to the New England Patriots on what he described this week as a “business trip” — one in which he said he wakes up each morning angry because his children aren’t with him. The urgency is palpable for him.
“Knowing that if I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, this could be ‘good riddance’ for me. That’s as serious as it is,” Newton said on sports radio WEEI.
His Patriots teammates feel it.
“He’s very motivated. As early as he works, as hard as he works, it’s hard to not fall in line for a guy like that,” starting right guard Shaq Mason said. “You want to have a leader like that.”
His coaches feel it, too.
“I’ve certainly observed someone that’s truly inspired to play as well as humanly possible,” quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch said. “His work ethic has been well-documented since he’s been here, and it’s all true. He’s here first in the morning, he’s last to leave.”
Newton has helped the Patriots to a 2-1 start, although he’s coming off a self-described “subpar performance” in last Sunday’s 36-20 win against the Las Vegas Raiders when his decision-making was shaky at times, including one “inexcusable” interception.
Through three games, he has accounted for six touchdowns (four rushing) and thrown for 714 yards with a 68.1 completion percentage, a career best. Should Newton lead the Patriots to an upset victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), the 2015 MVP would hit the quarter point of the season as a strong candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
He would also be positioned for another possible “award”: best job stepping into an unforgiving situation — replacing six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, whose shadow still looms large over the franchise. It plays out each Sunday when Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers games are shown nationally on television.
Last week, Newton acknowledged the spotlight has never shined brighter on him in his football playing career, in part because of that. How he has approached it has made a strong impression.
“Cam’s been very consistent since I have first met [him]. He loves the game of football and he also loves working really hard,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “I have a great respect for how much time and effort he puts in to prepare himself each day for what lies ahead. He doesn’t cut any corner.
“He is a tremendous leader and he does a lot each day to make sure he is at his best the next day. To me, his motivation is performing well and getting his group to perform well along with him … he pushes his teammates [and] he continues to keep our group loose. We have a lot of fun, but we work really hard. I just know he’s an unselfish guy that wants to do whatever we ask him to do to help our team win.”
One way Newton keeps it loose is through nicknames. Everyone, right down to coach Bill Belichick (“Dolla, Dolla Bill, Y’all”), gets one.
“You’ve just got to keep it fun. I just appreciate the guys for rolling with it, man,” Newton said. “Walking in day one, there’s an aura you get when you play as a member of the New England Patriots, and that aura can sometimes be ‘grrrr’. … But from the inside looking out, these guys really enjoy the process and I’m just lucky to be here. Any time I can lighten the mood in some way, shape or form, I hesitate not.”
His mood wasn’t so light this offseason when his career was on hold. When the Patriots first made contact with him in June, he said he had little desire to negotiate.
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A theme from Newton since he signed on July 8 isn’t about the money for him, it’s about respect.
“I can’t understand how he was on the market for 86 days,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said on CBS’ “The NFL Today” last Sunday. “Sometimes when you meet people who are No. 1 picks in the league, they aren’t always team-first kind of guys. He really is. Our whole locker room feels it.”
Newton’s assimilation to the Patriots’ offensive system has impressed Fisch, the quarterbacks coach, because of how much depth there is to it.
“He’s doing a tremendous job at learning,” Fisch said. “I think his motivation is to be the very best he possibly can be. Each week he’s shown that.”
McDaniels added that coaching Newton has been “very, very enjoyable.”
“He’s a really good listener. He communicates well. If he has a question, you always hear the question. He doesn’t hold anything in,” he said.
“I have been super impressed with his humility. This guy has accomplished a lot in his career. Being 10 years in the league and doing all the things he has done, coming here and having no familiarity with our coaching style, our system, or the way we do things, I have been incredibly impressed with the way he’s embraced it, looks forward to it, really wants to be coached, wants to be great, wants to improve.
“It is a great example for a lot of our younger players.”