After the Patriots demolished the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, I pointed out that Cam Newton got the avalanche started the way he backboned the opening drive.
Sixty-nine passing yards? Who cared?
“He’s not out there for a dissection," I wrote. "He’s out there to generate first downs and points and the first drive was a perfect illustration of that. … an efficient, low-risk, methodical, bullying drive that set the tone for the day. … Newton is safe and productive. You live with the throwing limitations because the running element tips the scales so significantly in his favor it’s barely worth discussing anyone else taking snaps when the game’s in the balance."
The Patriots lived by Cam against the Chargers (and some other elements).
The Patriots died by Cam against the Rams (and some other elements).
Newton’s not totally to blame for the fact the Patriots dropped to 6-7 with their 24-3 loss Thursday night. If Cam Akers didn't trample the defense for 171 yards, it at least would have been more competitive.
But the way the game played out put a billion-watt spotlight on Newton’s shortcomings as a complete quarterback. If he’s not able to generate “first downs and points” or bring the “running element,” he’s fairly useless. Especially if the Patriots begin to lose contact on the scoreboard and they need someone to throw footballs overhand with a little decisiveness and a smidge of accuracy.
That, as we all know, is not Newton’s bailiwick. This isn’t breaking news. We’ve discussed that when the Patriots' season meets its end, it will almost do so completely or in large part because they’re bad at the forward pass. That’s not a spot you really want to be in for 2020. Or any time in the past 35 years, to be honest.
The Patriots gained nine yards on their first two possessions, going three-and-out both times and falling behind 10-0. The first-half bludgeoning of the Chargers four days ago seemed long ago.
After Myles Bryant's brilliant pick ended the Rams' third drive and gave the Patriots the ball at the Rams 31, Newton dug the Patriots into a crater with a pick-six on a screen pass.
Should he have seen it was going south and thrown it away? Matt Cassel said on our "Postgame Live" program that it’s a timing play and Newton was throwing to a spot and it wasn’t really his fault. Matt knows more than I do but we can definitely both agree on this: Down 17 with an unimposing receiver corps and a scattershot quarterback is a bad place to be.
Which leads us to how those limitations prey upon the options for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in trying to extract points from the offense.
No one can argue that Newton isn’t diligent in trying to protect the ball. He vigorously self-flagellates when he turns it over and you can almost see in his decision-making a wariness of doing it again.
When the Patriots got the ball back after Newton’s pick-six, they went on a tidy drive on which they ran on the first five plays. A holding call put them in first-and-20 and Newton had a clean, 25-yard hookup with a very open Damiere Byrd. After that, back to the ground. Three more runs and it was first-and-goal at the 6. Damien Harris ran for one yard. Sony Michel ran for two. On third-and-goal, Newton tried a quarterback draw out of shotgun from an empty formation. He got one yard.
Which brought us to the conundrum: Run, as most everyone expected? With Newton having scored 11 rushing touchdowns and re-emerging as one of the best red-zone running threats in the NFL this year, that was the conservative play. But it also had a greater chance of success based on how the season’s gone and how this game and that drive were playing out.
Or put it in the air from short range and hope A) someone would uncover, B) Newton would see him quickly and trust it and C) he’d throw it accurately?
McDaniels chose to run an option, a block was missed, there was traffic, Newton seemed wary of pitching the ball to Harris and the play was stuffed.
Newton confirmed that wariness after the game, saying, “I didn’t want to pitch the ball and lead to a potential turnover. I didn’t want to create another bad play.”
They got nothing.
In the Patriots' past two wins, they got mammoth contributions that helped prop up the offense. Last week, there was a punt return touchdown and a blocked field goal returned for a score. The week prior, there were two big returns that helped lead to points while the defense helped bail Newton out after a late-game pick against Arizona.
That’s the complementary football the Patriots cannot thrive without.
Bill Belichick confirmed after the game that “Cam’s our quarterback.” That’s really no surprise. There are enough “ifs” and “buts” from this game to cobble together a defense that Newton wasn’t the problem.
If the defense wasn’t so porous early. If they’d kept the Rams out on fourth-and-goal on their first drive. If the Bryant pick had gone for a touchdown. If the block on the failed fourth-and-goal had been executed. If there’d been a defensive holding flag in the third quarter on a downfield throw to N’Keal Harry. If Akeem Spence didn’t jump offsides and give the Rams a first-and-goal they turned into their final touchdown. If the Patriots weren’t 0 for 4 in the red zone.
You can – if you try hard enough – tilt this game on its side and say, “Damn. Just missed. A play here and there…”
The only way the Patriots can get to the postseason now is if they win their last three. The next one is against Miami, a team Newton ran on 15 times for 75 yards against in the season-opening win. With the season on the line, do you dance with the one that brung ya? Or do you go to Jarrett Stidham, who’s never made an NFL start?
The answer for at least the Miami game is clear. It’s Newton. But his limitations as a thrower compounded by the pedestrian skill players he’s surrounded by should mean that, if the Patriots drop that one, it’s time to start planning for 2021 and finding out if Stidham can be part of the solution going forward.