All things being equal, there’d be no reason Cam Newton couldn’t make his case to be opening day starter for the Patriots in 2020.
But all things really aren’t equal between Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.
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First, Newton has to show he’s recovered from foot and shoulder problems that marred his last two seasons. From all indications, that’s a formality. The Patriots expect Newton to have no physical limitations.
Second, Newton has to make up the system stagger that Stidham and Hoyer have on him. There are a lot of plug-and-play positions on a football team. Quarterback isn’t one of them. The position demands its owner know his job cold AND the responsibilities of 10 other guys.
That’s less of a sure thing.
Stidham’s been with the team through two offseasons, got specific tutelage throughout 2019 from offensive assistants like Mick Lombardi and has had 15 months to eat, drink and sleep the Patriots' way of doing things.
Hoyer’s been around it even longer.
Newton’s been with the team a little more than a week. Sources say he’s already into the playbook, learning the language and there’s no concern he won’t master it. But demonstrating that mastery on the practice field and in preseason games? Newton may not have that chance.
Two weeks of preseason have been lopped. Right now, the league and players are wrangling over how to ramp-up the early stages of camp. The union, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, wants 80 players on rosters as opposed to 90, just 20 players at a time at the facility during the first 21 days of camp and 40 during the next 10-day phase of non-contact practices. So that’s 31 days of players in shifts from the time camp theoretically opens on July 28. There are then 10 practices (eight padded) and the two preseason games.
It’s inevitable that a full-go Newton will be the Patriots' starter at some point in 2020. And over that proposed 41-day period, there will be plenty of time for Newton to show the arm strength, mobility, poise and leadership the team presumes he’ll bring.
But will it be enough time for Newton to show he can run the Patriots offense as smoothly as Stidham and Hoyer? Who gets the first-team reps in camp? Who starts the preseason games? Is weight placed on the crispness of the whole operation when they do hit the field or — if it doesn’t look just right — is that chalked up to the acclimation period?
“I think Jarrett Stidham is going to make this closer than most people realize,” said Chris Simms, an analyst for NBC Sports and Pro Football Talk. “(When the Newton signing happened) I thought, ‘Ooohh, this far into the offseason …?’ I just thought the Patriots would stand pat with Stidham. I know they really like him. This is going to be hard to overcome.”
On further review, Simms realized the equation will ultimately boil down to who’s the better player: Newton or Stidham?
“The more they play around with Cam Newton, the more they’re going to realize, ‘Whoa, there’s just a whole other facet of our playbook here that we can dive into and be very effective with Cam Newton over Stidham too,’ ” Simms said. “I would imagine Cam Newton is going to be the starter and Jarrett Stidham will be his very willing backup.”
From indications I’ve gotten, this will be an open competition. The starter’s job isn’t promised Newton. Importantly, the sense is that Newton understands that. And the belief is that if he’s not the starter coming out of camp, he wouldn’t pull the ripcord and demand his release so he could latch on elsewhere. Both sides want this to work. Both sides know that work is what it will require.
When you sit back and think about it, trepidation and presumptions about what Newton would expect his situation to be is what led him to the Patriots.
“He got screwed over by his own team, then Covid-19 hurt him with being able to get the medical checks,” said Simms. “So all the seats were filled for starting quarterbacks. I’ve been saying that nobody would sign Cam Newton except for a few teams because he would disrupt or divide a locker room (if he’s not the starter).
“If he’s your backup, everybody’s going to go, ‘Man, did you see our backup today? Did you see that throw he made? Did you see that run he had? Did you see that throw he made on the run?’ And everyone’s going to say, ‘Why aren’t we starting him?’ That will ruin a football team,” said Simms. “That’s why he was on the street. But this is a situation that certainly makes sense.”
It does because Newton isn’t trying to beat out a quarterback the team drafted high and planned to hand the reins to. Stidham’s a promising player they took a shot at. His flag isn’t planted anywhere on the depth chart.
The question isn’t whether Newton is good enough to start over Stidham. The question is how quickly a Patriots offense that’s been built around a pocket assassin morphs to meet Newton halfway.
Simms says that shouldn’t be an issue.
“It’s the most versatile playbook in the NFL,” he said. “There’s no team in the NFL that can reinvent their offense, or their team or the mantra of their team on a regular basis. I don’t think this is going to be a huge adjustment for them where they say, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to invent this whole new playbook.’ A lot of these plays are in their playbook. Now, instead of putting them on page 185, now we move them up to the first 40 pages of the playbook because they’ll be more of a staple that way.”
Bottom line? Pandemic or not, teams don’t generally wait until June 28 to acquire their starting quarterback for an upcoming season. The Patriots have.
We’ll find out if that means, “Ready or not, here comes Cam!” in Week One.