When the offseason crept toward early July, the easiest thing for Bill Belichick to do was stand pat. Just stick with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer as his lead quarterbacks and see how it goes.
The entire league – Patriots included – had barely sniffed around Cam Newton’s hindquarters since he was released in March. He’d expect to start. He’d be expensive. He’d been hurt. He was a big personality. His skill set was the polar opposite of Stidham, Hoyer and the guy who’d been here for 20 years.
It would have been less complicated for Belichick to cross his fingers and hope all the “ifs” came up his way.
That Stidham could handle replacing Brady. That the offensive line would be healthy, mesh and play to its level. That N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu improve and bounce back respectively. That the rookie tight ends would fit right in, that the running game was a victim of circumstance in 2019 and not as bad as it looked.
But Belichick didn’t pick up the nickname “Doom” 40 years ago because he perpetually looks on the bright side and figures things will work out.
Even though signing Newton would ratchet up the media vultures, change Stidham’s rate of progress and probably be a one-year rental even if it did work out, not taking that chance put a ceiling on how good the 2020 Patriots offense could be.
So he signed Newton for the shortest money he could.
If Newton was healthy and if Newton, Belichick and McDaniels were simpatico, then the Patriots could pivot and run a completely different offense.
It’d be hard to reconfigure things in late June. It’d be a leap to expect Newton to play at a level he hadn’t since 2015. But a Newton-led offense would hide the roster inefficiencies at wide receiver and tight end. It would add – best-case scenario – a running threat that would make every single ball-carrier incrementally better.
And if it didn’t work?
Then the Patriots offense would be where it was before Newton signed: a town called NotGood.
And in the span of five damn weeks, Newton took the job, the Patriots changed the offense and the Patriots are 1-0.
New England never wandered from the league’s consciousness. While they might have moved off into its peripheral vision after eight months of hits, nobody ever forgot about them.
But after Sunday they are right back squarely in the middle of the league’s field of vision. Everybody has to sit up and take notice.
It’s not just what Josh McDaniels cooked up for Newton and Newton’s ability to carry it out in a turn-back-the-clock performance.
It’s not just the offensive line playing at a late-2018 level. It’s not just the Patriots defense being intricate, aggressive and stout despite the losses people like me dutifully listed all offseason.
Those things are just framing on top of the same old foundation of clear vision, decisiveness and relentless efficiency when the most sensible path becomes clear.
The Patriots ran 63 offensive plays on Sunday. Newton either threw or carried on 34 of them. On the plays he didn’t carry – like Rex Burkhead’s 15-yard run on a read-option late in the first quarter – the gain came because Miami (in that case Shaq Lawson) couldn’t tell if Newton was keeping or handing off. So Newton’s presence on the 63 plays – the dual threat he posed – figured into way more than the 34 that showed up in the final statistics.
Newton is the offense.
Can you picture how the offense would have looked Sunday if Hoyer or Stidham were under center? Brady had a hard time getting blood from the stone that was the team’s skill-position players last year. How would either of them have looked?
There will be no Brady slander here. Ever. But the basic elements a Brady-led offense needs in place to succeed were not there last year and they’re not here now. Newton brings a “Screw it, I’ll do it myself…” element to the Patriots offense that Brady couldn’t.
The best summation of the situation was probably uttered by Newton himself in early July when he said, “We have to talk about the elephant in the room.” Newton said, “You know who you’re coming after (in succeeding Brady)? I’m like ‘Yeah, great.’ What he was, what he is, is great, needs no even talking about it.
“But one thing about it though: Coach McDaniels, you’re able to call some stuff that you ain’t ever been able to call now. You’re getting a dog. You’re getting one of these ticked off dogs, too. And I’m looking at the schedule and I’m like ‘Who we’re playing? That team passed on me! OK, that team passed on me. They could’ve came and got me.' ”
Show me the lie? Newton ran more times in a game than he has since 2014. He was a full-on dog all afternoon.
I don’t know how it’s going to look this year when the Patriots get behind and have to throw. Or how it will look when teams go to school on the tape they put out against Miami. We will probably get our first indication this Sunday when they go against the Seahawks – a team that’s a cut above the Dolphins.
But the Patriots are better than they were on June 27 because Bill Belichick did something that was complicated and had no guarantee of working out. Fortune favors the bold.