By Seth Galina
The idea that the New England Patriots were going to try and compete for a year with Jarrett Stidham at quarterback made almost no sense. Stidham has shown little to be considered a competent NFL quarterback. Unless he made some miraculous jump, playing him in 2020 might have wasted one of the NFL’s best defenses.
While Stidham's stats may have looked fine after taking 217 preseason snaps, his 4-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio was not what it seemed. He had five big-time throws to six turnover-worthy plays and took 10 sacks.
Stidham's passing grade after removing RPOs, screens and designed rollouts was 73.2. Among the 77 quarterbacks who logged at least 25 true dropbacks last preseason, his grade was 23rd, sandwiched between Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Sloter.
Players, of course, can improve, but there was nothing that suggested that Stidham was going to be a viable starter.
Enter Cameron Newton. We already know he can play. Assuming he stays healthy, the Patriots are getting a player with a history of high-level play.
The Cam Newton story is fascinating. Burdened with some below-average wide receivers over the years, Newton looked to be ascending onto a different plane of QB as he won the 2015 MVP award. His passing grade on true dropbacks went from 69.7 in 2012 to 72.1 in 2013 to 75.7 in 2014. His MVP year saw him break through at 84.2, good enough for sixth in the league.
That regular season, he rushed for a whopping 56 first downs on only 135 rushes. Among players with at least 100 carries that year, that 41.5 percent first-down rate dwarfs the next highest player. In 2015, he was a walking — or rather, running — first down. All combined, his PFF grade was 83.9 that regular season.
Injuries caught up to Newton in the subsequent seasons. In 2016, he was concussed early in the season and ended up tearing his rotator cuff later in the year. In the 2017 playoff game against New Orleans, he suffered knee ligament and cartilage damage. Early on in the 2018 season, his shoulder started acting up again; he played through pain every week until the Panthers eventually shut him down with the team out of the playoff hunt.
His 2019 season ended after only two games because of a Lisfranc injury, but not before he looked belabored trying to play through the injury in a prime-time game against Tampa Bay in Week 2. His PFF grade suffered. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, he graded out at 68.5, 66.5 and 70.9, respectively. His 2019 season was 48.6 in limited action.
Is Cam Newton a one-hit wonder?
In 2018, with a relatively healthy lower half, Newton was still incredible in the run game. On designed quarterback runs or option plays, Newton gained a first down 35.1 percent of the time and forced 0.16 missed tackles per attempt — third and sixth, respectively, among qualifying QBs. Specifically on non-option plays, he picked up a first down on 50 percent of his carries.
At his best, in 2015, the majority of his schemed runs were on power plays. With Mike Tolbert on the field, the Panthers were able to use the beefy running back to act as a fullback. This gave the Panthers a numbers advantage in the box with the quarterback as the ball carrier. They could space the defense out and make it look like they were in regular 11 personnel, but really they were in a pseudo one-running back, one-fullback package.
In the following years, with Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers had to change. Out went most of the quarterback power schemes, and the QB boot became the first-down maker.
The Patriots are already a heavy under-center play-action team — they had the fourth-most play-action dropbacks last season. Now they can add the true quarterback boot action to the playbook. Overall, Newton has been an average under-center play-action passer but was good in 2017, posting a passing grade of 87.3 on those plays.
Newton threw accurately over the middle, which included quick in-breaking routes that the Patriots often run off play-action.
The Patriots have already shown us some intriguing quarterback runs when Jacoby Brissett was thrust in the starting role in 2017. I’m sure offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is licking his chops.
Cam Newton’s biggest weakness: accuracy
The Patriots need Newton to win consistently in the dropback passing game. Newton has been in the league long enough that he can come in and pick up the system; he should also be able to make good decisions. However, getting the ball to his receivers accurately has proven to be an issue.
In terms of throws charted as accurate over the past three full seasons (postseason included), Newton ranks 36th among the 41 QBs with at least 500 attempts. Where he consistently fails is in trying to drop the ball down into his receiver’s hands.
Over that same span, 13.2 percent of Newton's passes were charted as “high” or “overthrown,” per PFF's QB charting process. Of players with over 300 throws, that’s better than only Josh Rosen, Mason Rudolph and Jeff Driskel.
The issue was the tremendous arch in his back when he throws. Quarterbacks and QBs coaches are always talking about rotating around a fully erect spine. With the spine straight, the elbow is the only moving part to accuracy. So, with Newton’s arched back, he’s adding a second moving part. With that said, he’s a freakish athlete in the way he creates torque, enabling velocity on his throws.
The accuracy is not the easiest issue to change at this point in his career. Patriots fans hope that all the injuries combined affected Newton’s numbers greatly.
The Patriots' offense will have to change to accommodate Newton in the quick passing game. While Tom Brady’s accuracy in the quick passing game was a mainstay of the Patriots, Newton was the 41st most accurate passer on throws between 1 and 9 yards among quarterbacks with 100 attempts over the past three seasons. Brady averaged 4.6 quick dropbacks a game over the past three seasons, and Newton averaged 2.7. Those can be replaced by Newton’s designed runs where he’s added 127 expected points, most among any player — nevermind just QBs — since 2006.
In a division with youngsters Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Tua Tagovailoa and the volatile Ryan Fitzpatrick, Newton could easily continue the Patriots' legacy of having the best quarterback in the division. He could also continue his downward spiral.
Despite the range of outcomes, he is definitely a better option for the Pats than Stidham. He is a tremendous quarterback despite all the injuries, and for the excitement and unique ability that Newton brings, we can only hope we see that quarterback again.
For more NFL analysis, go to PFF.com.
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