In a matter of hours, the unthinkable saga playing out for the New England Patriots will move into Act 2.
The first was both wounding and incomprehensible for the New England fan base — with the most hurtful dagger yet coming in the form of a Tom Brady Instagram picture in which he not only signs his Tampa Bay Buccaneers contract, but smiles as he twists the knife.
But the second act of this saga is about to open. A development that only a few years ago would have been almost as insane as Brady leaving New England.
Not only are the Patriots about to get a shot at signing Cam Newton, the opportunity will come completely free of draft pick compensation.
Nothing. Nada. Just the risk of a short-term “prove it” deal — which will be available for Newton following an inevitable release by the Carolina Panthers. That’s how depressed his value is after a spate of injuries have thrown the remainder of a once-promising MVP career into question. As of Friday, Newton was in the same drifting boat as Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston. According to multiple league sources who spoke to Yahoo Sports, the trio has failed to find traction among suitors as potential starting quarterback options.
In Newton’s case, he might be the ray of serendipity needed to break the clouds descending over the Patriots after the loss of Brady.
Is it a perfect match? Certainly not, particularly when you consider that New England goes a long way to avoid players who can’t stay healthy. Even so, Newton fits the mold of a depressed asset the Patriots occasionally pull off the scrap heap. Most especially when that asset has had flashes of brilliance that lean into some offensive creativity. Think running back Dion Lewis, whose career was in injury shambles before the Patriots saw his speed and mismatch potential as a utility back. Lewis was cheap, available and extremely useful, which is pretty much the preferred wheelhouse of New England in the offseason.
Newton is about to be available. He’s certainly going to be cheaper than anyone could have expected. Now all he has to do is convince the Patriots that he’s still a useful player — which is a very fair question considering teams are unsure about his throwing shoulder and lower body health.
There’s also a pressing question about New England’s plan following Brady’s departure. A team source who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Thursday was unequivocal on one point: There is still a sense of shock amongst some in the building who believed the impasse between Brady and the Patriots would be worked out — right up to the point that it became clear he’d reached terms with the Buccaneers. It wasn’t, and the resulting void opens the question about what exactly head coach Bill Belichick is planning.
Will it be a tear-down and rebuild? Will it be a retool on the fly? And how much will Belichick’s age (he turns 68 next month) impact whether or not he’s looking for a seasoned veteran quarterback?
That all remains to be seen. But the Patriots haven’t called the Bengals on Dalton, heavily speculated as the potential go-to move if Brady departed. Is that because another option like Newton is about to come available? Only Belichick’s minuscule inner circle — or perhaps only Belichick himself — knows the answer to that.
One thing shouldn’t be up for debate. Out of that trio of Newton, Dalton and Winston, there’s little denying that the QB most equipped to follow Brady and not be fazed is the same guy who has already been living under those expectations since he arrived in the NFL.
Which isn’t to say Dalton is a bad option. He’s not. He’s just a different kind of option under the post-Brady microscope. Dalton is a good player who can be reliable in the right system, and who will likely stick around the league for another six or seven years, despite turning 33 this October.
Newton, on the other hand, is a former league MVP who’s had flashes of brilliance, endured a Super Bowl loss, and carried the expectation of an entire franchise on his shoulders. He has flaws, no doubt. And he doesn’t exactly fit the type of system that was built around Brady. But there was a time in his career when he was good enough to earn very high praise from Belichick, who doesn’t tend to heap compliments on guys just to be polite. Few are likely to recall it now, but in 2017, when the league was shifting into overdrive toward quarterbacks who could improvise with the football in their hands, Belichick called Newton “public enemy No. 1” when it came to guys who drove defenses crazy with their ability to create with their arms and feet.
A few days later, Newton beat the Patriots in Gillette Stadium 33-30, throwing for 316 yards and three touchdowns while running for 44 yards and a fourth score.
Belichick forgets nothing when it comes to the players who beat him. And there might not be a single coach in the NFL who has made a living destroying the league with players and schemes that create mismatches. It’s one of the reasons why the Patriots had an affinity toward Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL draft — to the point of not only working him out, but also considering him as the team’s next potential replacement for Brady.
That never worked out, but it can’t be lost that even entertaining Jackson (not to mention putting what one source says was a second-round grade on him) shows Belichick isn’t locked into a pocket player who fits the Brady mold. If Belichick has shown anything over the course of the past 20 years, it’s that given the ability to tinker with his personnel, he can be a chameleon that changes with the times and trends. Leaning into Newton would be exactly that after Brady’s departure.
Of course, that can only happen if Newton has the medical to put New England’s mind at ease. The motivation shouldn’t be a question. If anyone has paid attention to Newton’s social media accounts, there’s little question he’s hurt about his ending with the Panthers. And even less ambiguity about whether he wants to show the world that Carolina made a significant mistake.
If he is healthy, available and useful, that’s the kind of player Belichick typically leans toward. The opportunity is coming to figure out whether Newton is that kind of player — and whether he’s New England’s best shot at filling an unimaginable void