Stepping in for Tom Brady was never going to be easy. Upon that most can agree. But does it get any easier if the last offense Brady shepherded wasn't exactly a well-oiled machine?
If Cam Newton is Cam Newton this fall and takes over for Brady, if he's The Next Guy, he'll be seizing the reins of an offense that found itself in the middle of the pack in a number of statistical categories in 2019.
The Patriots ranked seventh in points scored (though they were helped there by opportunistic defense and special teams units), and they were 11th in the Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA metric. Rock solid. But they were 22nd in yards per pass attempt and 17th in quarterback rating. Their 3.8 yards per rushing attempt was 28th last season, and their success rate on third down (38.3 percent) was 17th.
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Their success rate per play, per Sharp Football Stats -- defined as picking up 40 percent of the yards needed for a first down (or touchdown) on first down, 50 percent on second down and 100 percent on third and fourth down -- was 17th in the NFL (46 percent). In the red zone, their success rate (42 percent) was 22nd. In goal-to-go situations, they ranked 25th with a 41 percent success rate.
A healthier offensive line in 2020 would go a long way to improving all of the above numbers. But if Newton is Newton, if he provides the Patriots the rare physical skill set he brings to the table when at full strength, he could help Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels' offense improve over what it was in 2019 in a few critical situations. Here's what we found after doing some digging on Warren Sharp's site Sharp Football Stats.
Let's start right on the doorstep of points and work our way backward. The Patriots did not possess an elite goal-line offense in 2019.
Without fullback James Develin clearing the way for the Patriots running game, without David Andrews at center, without Isaiah Wynn at left tackle for half the season, without starting-caliber tight end play, their hard-nosed approach at the goal line was missing something. From the one- and two-yard lines in 2019, the Patriots were 16th in the NFL in success rate (12-for-22). In gotta-have-it third- and fourth-down situations at the one- or two-yard lines -- a much smaller sample -- the Patriots were 19th in total success rate (4-for-7).
Enter Newton. His 58 career rushing touchdowns in the regular season are proof of his standing as one of the best red-zone runners in modern NFL history. And one doesn't have to go all that far back in the archives to find Newton-run offenses experiencing goal-line success. When he was last healthy enough to play the majority of a season, he and the Panthers ran the most efficient goal-line offense in football. From the one- or two-yard line in 2018, Carolina was No. 1 in success rate (13-for-18). And in gotta-have-it situations, they were 5-for-5.
Newton's 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame is obviously an issue for defenses backed up against their own end zones. He's a fall forward away from six points. But the threat Newton poses as a runner provides enough for defenders to think about that they may hesitate a blink in their assignments. And at that point on the field, that brief moment of indecision is long enough to gum up a play. Is Newton going to leap over the line? Is he faking a handoff and taking it to the edge? Is he going to keep it and hit his tight end sneaking behind a layer of over-aggressive linebackers?
It's a problem. And Newton was so effective as both a runner and a passer in 2018 that even with a somewhat mediocre surrounding cast, the Panthers' success extended well beyond the goal line.
We mentioned above that play-for-play the Patriots were 22nd in terms of red zone success rate in 2019. But in terms of touchdown rate they ranked slightly lower, coming in at 26th with touchdowns on 49.2 percent of their red-zone trips. (Interestingly, they were far better on the road than they were at home -- 57 percent versus 43 percent -- when crowd noise should have been a factor.)
The Patriots were 15th in passing success rate in the red zone last season and 25th in rushing success rate. Though they weren't bad when it came to their effectiveness on "four-point plays" (third down in the red zone, where one play can be the difference between seven points and three). In those spots, the Patriots were 10th in the NFL, converting on 43 percent of their opportunities.
But with Newton behind center for the Panthers in 2018, they were better off than the 2019 Patriots in just about every red-zone category. Their touchdown percentage was 62.1 percent that year (12th) and their play-for-play success rate was tops in the NFL at 56 percent. They were the fourth-best rushing offense (61 percent) and fourth-best passing offense (50 percent) in terms of success rate over the course of the season.
And before Newton suffered a hard hit to his shoulder halfway through 2018 -- when it was looking like his 2018 performance would rival his MVP season in 2015 -- the Panthers were even better down in close. They were successful on a whopping 59 percent of their red-zone plays, they were first in passing success rate (61 percent) and first on those "four-point plays," picking up the necessary yardage on 71 percent of their third downs inside the 20.
With Christian McCaffrey, Greg Olsen, Devin Funchess and DJ Moore at his disposal, Newton had the NFL's best quarterback rating in the red zone through eight weeks in 2018 (130.6), he completed a league-best 78 percent of his red-zone passes, and he had an 11-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Brady in 2019 had a 99.6 rating in the red zone (18th) and completed 60 percent of his passes (15th).
If Newton is healthy -- the perpetual offseason "if" surrounding this particular team -- and if the Patriots can tap into what made him one of the league's most efficient passers two years ago, they'll have the ultimate dual-threat at quarterback to help pull them out of their season-long red-zone funk from 2019.
The Patriots were a better short-yardage rushing team than you might remember, on average. On third- and fourth-down attempts with a yard or two to go, they were successful on 23 of their 33 rush attempts. That 70 percent success rate was good enough for the 12th-best success rate in the NFL. Not bad.
It's the passing plays you remember. The Mohamad Sanu drop. The missed block on the quick-hitter to N'Keal Harry. The Patriots were 6-for-14 on third- and fourth-down passes with a yard or two to go. That was a 43 percent success rate, placing them 30th in the NFL. Not good.
Overall the Patriots were 20th in the league (62 percent successful) in those third- or fourth-and-short situations.
For the same reasons Newton should help the Patriots on the goal line, he should help them improve their short-yardage numbers between the 20s as well. In 2018, a for-the-most-part-healthy Newton and the Panthers were 68 percent successful on third or fourth-and-short situations. That was largely thanks to Newton's rushing ability, as he was 77 percent successful carrying the football in those spots, 14th in the NFL among runners (all positions) with at least nine such attempts. By comparison, Patriots running back Sony Michel has had a 64 percent success rate in the same scenario in both of his two pro seasons. Between 2016 and 2018, Newton was successful on a whopping 82 percent of his carries on third- or fourth-and-short. If anyone needed a number beyond touchdowns to prove Newton's overall effectiveness as a short-yardage runner, that might be it.
The Patriots work on what they call "situational football" relentlessly. Their first goal-line reps of the year usually come at the tail end of their first padded practices. Third-down reps. Red-zone reps. They get repped. And repped. And repped. Starting in the summer, through the fall, and into the winter. Belichick demands a focus on those aspects of the game that usually yields results. Last season, though, those results weren't always there.
For the first time in Belichick's tenure with the Patriots, he'll go into a season pursuing situational precision with a quarterback not named Brady. But if Newton is healthy -- there's that "if" again -- and if he can recapture whatever it was he had in Carolina in 2018, there's a chance the Patriots actually see an uptick in situational success after losing arguably the greatest situational quarterback in the history of the game.