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Bill Belichick finally acknowledged Cam Newton’s departure. The New England Patriots coach finally said the quarterback’s name — something Belichick bizarrely didn’t do in the press conference which followed the Patriots cutting Newton. Belichick wouldn’t even say “Cam” in front of the media until Tuesday.
It’s unclear if the Patriots’ relationship with Newton ended on poor terms. But when they were clicking, Newton was the perfect man for an impossible job.
“I have nothing but positive thoughts and feelings for Cam. He came in here, he worked hard. He gave us everything we had,” Belicick told WEEI sports radio on Tuesday. “Right now, our future is going to be Mac [Jones] at quarterback, and that is where we’re going to go.”
Everything? Well, that’s complicated. After all, Newton was not fully vaccinated in training camp, during which the quarterback accidentally violated the NFL’s protocols for players who are not fully vaccinated. As a result, Newton missed five days of work. That opened the door for Jones, who had his best practice in Newton’s absence.
Still, Newton did a tremendous amount for New England. His schedule was insane, with a 4 a.m. wakeup and late nights at Gillette Stadium. From Belichick to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to his teammates, the team was impressed with Newton’s dogged work ethic to study the playbook despite the pandemic making it more challenging to learn. He was energetic at practice and a key leader in the locker room. He missed just one game in 2020 after contracting COVID-19. Otherwise, he managed the bumps and bruises of the season — and surely, Newton had many, with 137 rushes for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Patriots couldn’t really return the favor. That seemed like something the Patriots might do in 2021. After a brutal year in 2020, Belichick spent aggressively to restock the team’s talent on offense and defense. He seemed interested in doing whatever he could to help Newton enjoy a bounce-back year. At least, it appeared that way until the draft when the Patriots took Mac Jones with the 15th overall pick. Belichick quickly said: “Cam’s our quarterback.” But then said he’d play whichever quarterback played best, opening the door for Jones to overtake Newton. Ultimately, Jones played better. The Patriots cut Newton — even when he might have served a valuable role as a backup.
He won’t get to play on a roster that seemed constructed to suit his strengths, with two tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, a deep threat in Nelson Agholor and a pair of possession receivers in Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne. Four of those five players are free-agency signings — only Meyers is a returner. All the while, the Patriots have a deep group of running backs, from Damien Harris to James White to Rhamondre Stevenson.
That’s the group Newton was surely excited to lead. Now, he’s a free agent. It’s tough to see him jobless after watching him do just about everything for the Patriots in 2020. Let’s be clear: That’s the nature of the NFL. If you’re not the best player, you won’t play, especially in New England. Newton knows that’s the business. But it was hard not to root for him in 2021.
He was as graceful as a quarterback could be in the wake of Tom Brady’s departure. Replacing the greatest quarterback of all time would be a challenge, even if the Patriots were a talented team. But Brady’s and Antonio Brown’s contracts (a player Brady was firmly supportive of the Patriots acquiring) left New England with $18 million in dead cap space. Between those salary cap issues and a few years of poor drafting by Belichick, the Patriots didn’t have much in the way of talented personnel to offer Newton. They had great coaching — but that only went so far. The passing offense struggled, with Newton finishing with eight passing touchdowns, 10 interceptions and 2,657 passing yards. His top receiver was Meyers. Beyond that, the depth chart was bare.
Still, Newton took accountability after every game — perhaps even more than he needed to. He blamed himself, even when he was clearly just a part of the problem. He was the leader they needed.
Newton served as a placeholder in 2020, a season which Belichick basically admitted was lost at midseason when he chose not to trade for any players at the deadline to preserve cap space for 2021 free agency. It seemed like Newton would get the chance to benefit from the Patriots’ rapidly improving roster between 2020 and 2021. Jones foiled that plan, with excellent play and speedy development that not even Belichick expected. Jones was also clearly the focal point for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who spent most practices shadowing the rookie to coach him at every twist and turn. Newton was left to improve in Year 2 with less attention than in Year 1.
It’s a credit to Jones that he won the job so fast. But that doesn’t mean Newton didn’t deserve better from New England. He probably joined the Patriots with the thought that Belichick would work magic to rebuild Newton. Newton may have expected that — but didn’t presume anything, working hard at every turn. It didn’t work out, not even with Newton eating plenty of grief along the way. Here’s hoping he gets vaccinated — so long as he has no medical reasons not to — and lands with a team where he can compete for a starting job.