FOXBORO — On an April weekend 20 years ago, every team in the NFL repeatedly walked right past the equivalent of a billion-dollar lottery ticket left on the sidewalk.
Over and over for the better part of two days, Tom Brady just lay there. Either teams thought he wasn’t good enough or they had quarterback plans in place that didn’t include a subpar physical specimen with an average arm and a bunch of great “intangibles.”
Three times, according to the soon-to-be-released book "The Dynasty" written by Jeff Benedict, Bill Belichick wondered aloud why nobody was drafting him.
“Brady’s still on the board. Why is he still there?” asked Belichick after the Saints took Marc Bulger at 168.
After the Patriots used the 187th pick on Antwan Harris, Belichick said again, “Brady’s too much value. Why’s he still there?”
Finally, at 199, the Patriots said, “Enough.” And this franchise that didn’t really need a quarterback because it also had other plans took a quarterback anyway.
Things went really well for a couple decades.
Fast forward to this summer. Brady’s gone. Suddenly, the Patriots had questions at quarterback. For the other 31 teams, the league office and fans all around America who were sick to death of dealing with New England, it was springtime in America.
The Patriots kinda had a plan. Everybody always kinda has a plan. So the Patriots were one of the 32 teams that looked at Cam Newton just lying there and came up with good reasons why they shouldn’t stoop to pick him up.
They had Jarrett Stidham in the fold. He apprenticed for a year under Brady. He’d shown poise, leadership, a good arm. He had NFL starter upside. And they had a veteran safety net for Stidham if he didn’t work out in Brian Hoyer. Besides, they had no cap room at all.
But June arrived and the team — as it always does — looked hard at its roster and asked itself if there was any unsigned player who could help. And there sat Newton.
You can almost imagine Belichick looking at Nick Caserio and saying, “Newton’s too much value. Why’s he still there?”
The value of Newton resided in what he was willing to play for in 2020. The Patriots were cash-strapped at the end of June. If Newton — who was released in large part because of the $21.1M Carolina was on the hook for if he remained a Panther — made clear after he was released on April 7 that he’d sign for the NFL veteran minimum, there’s little doubt he would have been signed before June 28.
But he didn’t (and why would he?). And the presumed cost combined with his injury history and the fact that, wherever he went, he’d be a massive threat to the incumbent and make things uncomfortable meant that everybody walked on by.
Until the Patriots took a closer look. They were not in the Cam Newton business earlier in the spring. But when it became clear that this highly-motivated former MVP who could be a one-man wrecking crew when healthy was willing to work for a song and not ask to be anointed the starter?
The Patriots picked him up, dusted him off, put him in their pocket and went whistling down the street.
Earlier this week, watching Newton take the bulk of the Patriots offensive snaps while Stidham was limited by his upper-leg injury, the symmetry of the Brady/Newton acquisition stories struck me.
Both are examples of a particular kind of resourcefulness and adaptability that are rooted in optimism. An approach in which the team spends less time being cowed by the possibility of things not working out, and more time envisioning opportunity.
One of the tenets of the Patriots scouting philosophy since Scott Pioli was in charge of team-building during the first iteration of the dynasty was, “Don’t tell me what a player can’t do. Tell me what he can do.”
When the Patriots drafted Julian Edelman, they didn’t know exactly what they were going to do with him, but they knew they’d find a way to tap his skills.
Preconceived notions are anathema to Belichick. You wonder why his coaching staff and personnel departments are young, small and comprised of people who’ve only worked for him? I’m oversimplifying here, but he doesn’t want to have to untrain people who think they’ve seen it all and aren’t open-minded.
The Patriots weren’t in the Cam Newton business in April. But they kept an open mind. They asked around. They talked to him. They signed him.
Worst-case, he got hurt, wasn’t good, didn’t take kindly to the competition or the atmosphere. And the team would be where they were before they signed him with Stidham and Hoyer.
Best case? He came in, fit in, grasped what the Patriots wanted from him on and off the field and showed that — while he isn’t Brady-level good — he’s got plenty to give and will make the team better than it was.
The best case scenario is so far playing out.
Last week, quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch said, “The improvement that (Newton) is making on a daily basis are sometimes what you could see some other guys that have been in the same system for a few years make on a monthly basis. …”
“He just doesn’t have a lot of time and he’s coming from learning a brand new system, brand new terminology, brand new drops, brand new players and really when you look at it, you’re not going full speed until call it eight, nine, 10 days ago,” Fisch added. “I think the leaps that he’s taking each day have been really impressive based on the fact that there’s a huge foundational gap from call it not having been here the spring or the season before.”
Is Newton here to save the 2020 Patriots from a post-Brady swoon? That seems like a longshot.
Patriots Talk Podcast: McCourtys battle feelings of 'hopelessness' after Kenosha shooting | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube
Even though the Patriots finished the season 12-4 with Brady last year, they went 4-5 down the stretch and got stomped by every top-tier team in the AFC. Their 8-0 record out of the chutes was attributable in large part to the collection of overmatched quarterbacks they faced and weekly brilliance on defense and special teams.
The 2020 schedule looks a lot tougher, the defense was stung hard by free agent defections and opt-outs and the lack of dynamic offensive playmakers that made Brady so glum wasn’t remedied.
But if you were to put together a want-ad for the perfect post-Brady replacement, what would it include?
Successful, demanding employer seeking experienced quarterback who’s performed at elite level in high-leverage situations. Mobility a plus. Needs to be quick learner and get along well with others. Self-confidence a must. Pay short. Hours long.
The Patriots — the long-hated Patriots most of the country prayed would just go away — found their perfect employee. And he was just sitting there. Just like 20 years ago.