We’re about to find out if Cam Newton can handle the Patriot Way, the vaunted and storied and universally glorified method of running a professional football team in the 21st century. But prepare yourself: In the months before it happens, there will be content to consume.
We’ll breathlessly debate the pressures that await Newton: the steely gaze of Bill Belichick; the swirling fumes of the Tom Brady legend; the expectations brought upon by two decades of reliance on the entire spectrum of strategies and tactics — the legal, the sorta legal and the definitely illegal.
The Patriot Way allegedly demands the individual bury within himself each of the deadly sins — except maybe wrath — in the pursuit of collective success. It’s not just a job, after all; it’s an obsession. Everywhere and everything surrounding the New England Patriots signifies a monklike devotion to the game. There is no music in the locker room, no televisions beaming the latest news from around the league, no frivolous distractions such as pingpong or cornhole.
“I’ve had some moments where it was pretty tense, and there’s a lot of sacrifice,” Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers told me in December. “I’ve had to tell my family, ‘I can’t do anything with you right now, because I’ve got to focus.’ The expectations are something you feel as soon as you get here.”
Can Newton handle it? He has been NFL MVP more recently than Aaron Rodgers, and he has been to the Super Bowl more recently than Russell Wilson. Newton appears to be healthy for the first time in two years. He spent last year on the sideline for a Carolina Panthers team that assured the world as recently as February he was in its plans, then released him two weeks later. After months of silence, he was signed to a low-risk contract to quarterback a team that was otherwise left with second-year signal-caller Jarrett Stidham, who has significant promise but no experience.
Brady in Tampa is a cute aside, but this is the most remarkable and potentially shape-shifting move of the offseason.
“You almost wonder, Why would the league allow this?” says George Whitfield, a private quarterback coach who has worked extensively with Newton. “From a competitive standpoint, Cam and Belichick is a natural fit. It literally takes a shark to recognize another shark.”
It might not work, for reasons both football-related and not. Nine years of hits — a preposterous 922 of them, 307 more than Wilson in second place, according to ESPN Stats & Information — with Carolina could render him incapable of returning to his peak. On the surface, the Patriots’ offense looks similar to the groups that surrounded Newton with the Panthers: deficient at wide receiver, average at running back. However, New England has allowed the second-fewest sacks in the league over the nine years Newton has been a pro.
Or there’s always the chance he chafes at Belichick’s humorless managerial style, like so many before him. But there’s nothing in Newton’s professional history that indicates he can’t play through a few caustic mumbles and disappointed-dad glares. Outspoken personalities such as Chris Long and the Bennett brothers (Michael and Martellus) might not have loved their time under Belichick, but they certainly didn’t hinder the cause. Two of them won Super Bowls there. If Newton doesn’t revive his career in Foxborough, it isn’t going to be because the organizational philosophy can’t withstand a guy who wears fancy hats.
“Suggesting that Cam can’t adapt to Belichick is a lazy narrative,” Whitfield says. “Cam recognizes this as a singular opportunity. I can imagine Belichick telling him, ‘You have goals, and you have a chip on your shoulder. We have goals, and our shoulders look the same as yours — just not as big.'”
Belichick’s somnolent public persona has so overwhelmed the image of the Patriots that they’ve become one and the same.
“I think because of Bill, the whole Patriot Way has a little bit of a myth to it,” New England cornerback Jason McCourty told me. “The guys who are here and part of it don’t really see it like that.”
In reality, the Patriot Way can be explained by six Super Bowls and in four words: Win at all costs. This is a team that signed mid-meltdown Antonio Brown and late-stage Randy Moss, after he trudged through two seasons in Oakland. One didn’t work, and one did; they paid Brown more than $9 million for one game, but Moss rediscovered greatness in Foxborough. Long was outspoken, and he might have felt constricted under Belichick, but he said he learned more in one year as a Patriot than he could have imagined. The only mystery with the Newton signing is the timing. What took them so long?
(There was one plausible reason for the Sunday night announcement: It served as a tsunami to wash away the wake created by the NFL’s announcement that New England was punished for illegally filming the Bengals’ sideline — part of a series hilariously called “Do Your Job” — during a Cincinnati-Cleveland game in December. I have no idea if every team engages in this type of shadiness, but the Patriots are without question the worst at getting away with it.)
Whatever outlandish beliefs or personality quirks Newton possesses, it seems unlikely that any could stunt the Patriots’ ability to conform to their established ways. Get this one out of the way first: He once failed to dive into a pass rush in the hopes of recovering his own fumble in the Super Bowl. Beyond that, his interactions with the media can be difficult — he is routinely dismissive, occasionally condescending — but that will be a problem only if Belichick bristles at someone edging into his territory.
I spent considerable time around the Patriots last season, and around Newton in the past, and if there’s one thing he and Brady have in common, it is their ability to retain their superstar aura by steering clear of the daily grind of the locker room. NFL quarterbacks are the league’s protected class: They exist in an environment that is close to hermetically sealed, emerging publicly once during the week and once after a game to fend off questions while standing at a podium. Newton, like Brady before him, knows how to follow the script.
What does the Newton signing say about the Patriots? For once, they head into a season accompanied by intrigue, vulnerability and unpredictability. To replace Brady with Newton is not a matter of retooling the offense; this is Belichick snapping a dry branch over his knee. In 124 career starts, Newton has rushed for 50 yards 42 times — roughly once every three games, and second in NFL history to Michael Vick. Belichick has coached 400 regular-season games, and just once has one of his quarterbacks — Matt Cassel in 2008 — run for 50 yards in a game. Brady had nine seasons with fewer than 50 rushing yards.
Josh McDaniels right this moment is pivoting from devising an offense for the torpid Brady to the large and mobile Newton, and I can’t help but envision his face illuminated by a stack of burning playbooks.
“I cringe every time I hear people ask, ‘Can he do it from the pocket?'” Whitfield says. “Cam’s extremely bright. He’s nuanced. There aren’t going to be any coverages where he looks up and says, ‘I’ve never seen this before.’
“He can play in the pocket — it’s what he’s been doing — but he also has the world’s biggest and baddest parachute on his back, and when he’s in trouble, he can just reach out and pull it.”
If he is healthy, of course. The current state of the world prohibited teams from bringing Newton into their facilities for a physical or a workout, and it should also prohibit anyone from getting too giddy about Dolphins-Patriots on Sept. 13. (Sorry, just a reminder that all of this prognosticating could end up being meaningless as we continue along in the age of the eternal pregame show.)
But the risk of the signing is low and the potential reward astronomical. The doubts feel almost obligatory. Belichick spent most of the past 20 years watching the same guy play quarterback, and now he heads into his 21st year with someone who, if he’s anywhere near his prime, is a near antithesis of the last guy. But if Newton is healthy, he can win — and when you strip the Patriot Way of all its lore and varnish, that’s really all that’s left. Winning by whatever means necessary is the Way — the only Way, all of which is to say, whatever happens from here forward figures to tell us more about Bill Belichick than it does Cam Newton.