Cam Newton sat on the Patriots bench back in Week 7, having thrown three interceptions to the Niners, when Bill Belichick approached. A few words and a tap on the knee later, and Newton was relieved of his duties for the day.
The outlook for Newton was bleak at that point. He was two games into his tenure as Patriots starter after testing positive for COVID-19, and in those two weeks, he was among the bottom-third of quarterbacks in most major statistical categories: first in interceptions, 32nd in rating, 29th in yards.
"If you keep playing games like that, bro," Newton said to himself later that day, he told WEEI, "it's going to be a permanent change."
Since then? Since then he's helped the Patriots go 2-1 while orchestrating one of the most efficient offenses in football.
Some turnaround. Hard to believe, in fact, because in that time the Patriots have averaged a fine-but-not-overwhelming 24.7 points per game, and Newton is just 19th in total passing yards with only one touchdown throw.
But take a look at some of the quarterbacking efficiency numbers, as well as some of the more non-traditional quarterbacking statistics, and a different picture is painted.
Since being benched against San Francisco, Newton is fourth in the NFL in completion percentage (71.4 percent), ninth in yards per attempt (7.4) and 11th in quarterback rating (96.6). At the risk of making everything about Tom Brady in 2020 . . . Newton happens to be ahead of his Patriots predecessor in all three of those categories over the last three weeks.
Newton is also the No. 1 quarterback in football in adjusted completion percentage -- which accounts for drops, batted passes and throwaways -- since Week 8 (85.3 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. His adjusted completion percentage under pressure (89.5) is also tops in the NFL despite having the 11th-most under-pressure throws over the last three weeks (26).
His quarterback rating under pressure in that span is 74.5, good for 13th in football and ahead of Brady (70.5), Aaron Rodgers (56.8) and Ryan Tannehill (31.6). When kept clean, he's also been solid. His 76.5 completion percentage when not hurried puts him ahead of Kyler Murray (74.5), Russell Wilson (73.4) and Deshaun Watson (69.8).
Newton's accuracy numbers these last few weeks have been helped by the fact that he does not throw deep (four attempts of 20 yards or more, just 5.2 percent of his overall attempts), but he's played turnover-free the last two weeks, which has allowed a not-so-explosive offense to generally make the most of its possessions.
Looking at expected points added per play since Week 8, the Patriots are fourth in the NFL. And while their EPA per rush is unsurprisingly seventh-best in football, their EPA per dropback ranks even better at fifth. Newton's EPA per play figure is eighth among quarterbacks and his completion percentage over expected is fourth.
Just to put those numbers into perspective, Newton was 28th in EPA per play before Week 8 and 29th in CPOE. His completion percentage was 16th, as was his adjusted completion percentage. He was 20th in yards per attempt and 34th in quarterback rating.
Thanks in part to a hard-charging running game that features second-year back Damien Harris and a simple-yet-effective passing game that has featured a blossoming route-runner in wideout Jakobi Meyers, the Patriots have improved significantly on the offensive side over the course of the last three weeks. The Bills and Jets -- Newton's first two opponents in this three-week stretch -- aren't exactly the iron of the NFL defensively, but in beating the Ravens last weekend, the Patriots took down the No. 1 scoring defense in football.
Newton's passing numbers have been far from gaudy. But with a conservative approach, some savvy play-calling, and a little bit of trust in his new top target, the numbers would tell you that Newton has been one of the game's 10 most efficient quarterbacks since being benched by Belichick in Week 7.
“Cam’s our quarterback. That’s the way it’s been all year,” Belichick said a week later, after losing to the Bills.
If Newton sticks to the pace he's been on the last three weeks -- a sizable "if" given the ups and downs he's experienced this season -- Belichick won't have to field many more questions about whether or not his quarterback situation is settled.