Related: Bill Belichick projects ‘hard decision’ at quarterback but still calls Cam Newton the Patriots’ starter
Even though he is no longer on the same impressive level he was during his 2015 MVP campaign — a series of injuries are to blame for that — Cam Newton is still among the best athletes the quarterback position has to offer in the NFL. Heading into his second season with the New England Patriots, there is little to no need for the club to address this.
Sure, Newton struggled at times in 2020 and was one of the statistically worst passers in football, but he also faced some major challenges. Not only did he have to play with one of the worst skill position groups in the league, he also arrived comparatively late in the process and had to learn the Patriots offense on the fly with no offseason workouts or preseason to help him. Oh, and he missed 10 days after testing positive for Covid-19.
Through all that, however, Newton did have some encouraging moments. He finished his first season as a Patriot with 592 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, and also had some good moments throwing the ball even though they were few and far between.
He showed that he still knows the “How” even though he needs more favorable circumstances than last year to pull it off consistently. The Patriots seemed to agree, investing major resources to upgrade the wide receiver and tight end positions.
Heading into 2021, Newton’s preparation is therefore focused more on the “Why” rather than the “How.”
“He just knows much more about what we’re doing,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said about the veteran quarterback after Wednesday’s training camp practice. “It’s less new learning everyday, more repetition of things he already understands. That would be true for I think probably every player I have ever coached in their second year in our system. Things slow down. Things make more sense.
“There are things that I was probably telling him last year that he didn’t quite understand. … He was trying to do everything I said. Now, he actually understands the ‘Why’ on most things. That’s really the goal for the quarterback. When you’re out there trying to beat defenses on a play-to-play basis, if you don’t understand why we’re doing something or why you’re supposed to make the protection slide here or there, it’s a tough position to play.”
Now in their second season together, McDaniels said that the game has started to slow down for Newton compared to 2020. An improved supporting cast can help with that, but the QB’s own experience in the system and his ability to keep working on his understanding throughout a somewhat normal offseason plays a major role in this as well.
As a result of this, Newton is in a much better situation now than he was a year ago. His coordinator and position coach also seems to see it that way.
“I see it. You can just see it. You hear it,” McDaniels said when asked about his confidence that Newton will be better in 2021.
Newton himself also spoke about the difference between the first two years in the system earlier in training camp.
“There are a lot of things that are different this go-around, but it’s all good,” he said.
“Knowing what you’re looking for and knowing the focus, it’s not just like a fire hydrant of things coming at you. You kind of understand, ‘Do I want to focus on fronts today? Do I want to focus on pass combinations; 2-by-2 combinations, 3-by-1 combinations, 1-by-3 combinations?’ and things like that. Moving forward, knowing what my reads are and the faster I can go with the football the better off it’ll be.”
As far as his position within the offense is concerned, Newton still appears to be the frontrunner to keep the starting job. While first-round rookie Mac Jones has had some impressive moments in camp, Newton’s experience and ability to focus on the “Why” over the “How” still gives him an edge for the moment.
Still, McDaniels acknowledged that the offense as a whole — regardless of who is the starting quarterback — is still very much a work in progress at this early stage.
“We’re still growing. We’ve had one day in pads. To me our timing and rhythm offensively is going to come a lot more when we get more into padded sessions. You can’t touch a receiver in shells. Some of those things are going to happen and we’re going to get disrupted — and then it’s really kind of real football, if you will. We’re still grinding through the foundational part of it,” he said.
“Eventually here when we get into some competitive practices against ourselves, against the Eagles, against the Giants we’re going to find out a lot about whether or not we can win on certain things and put groups together and see if they go out there and compete and make positive plays.”
Those competitions will be a first true test for Newton and the Patriots offense as a whole. Will his experience and improved comfortability pay off? Will the better supporting cast help him improve his numbers? Will the unit as a whole function smoothly again?
All these questions will be answered one way or the other. For now, however, Newton’s focus remains on building his own comfort within the offense and continuing to understand the “Why” on consistent basis.
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