Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was the NFL MVP in 2015. He won the division three consecutive times, which had never been done in the NFC South to that point. He brought the Panthers to a Super Bowl while throwing the football to Ted Ginn Jr. 97 times. He was, without a doubt, good.
But people doubted that Newton was good. A “newfound maturity” was lauded for the entire 2015 season, only for all that credit to fly out of the window once Newton failed to dive for a fumble in the Super Bowl they lost, and then cut his post-game presser short. When the Panthers struggled in 2016, people asked if Newton’s 2015 run was a flash in the pan, despite the fact that he was now throwing to Kelvin Benjamin 118 times, and Ginn 95 times; that his offensive line was never above league average and was about to pour big money into Matt Kalil.
Newton has never been consistently dominant, but he has also never been consistently maximized. 2015 wasn’t a lie so much as it was a fleeting glimpse at how things could have been, if only Newton and the offense around him could get it all right. But for that brief moment, it never coalesced—injuries, personnel, coordinators, and Newton’s own unsteady play never lined up.
So Newton was cut with the changing of the guard in Carolina following his injured 2019 season. He sat on the free agent market forever, as NFL fans everywhere dreaded the inevitable, which finally dawned on Sunday evening like Thanos in his hunt for the Infinity Stones: Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were signing Cam Newton.
Newton is the immediate frontrunner to don the mantle of starting quarterback in New England, which was left by the image of consistent dominance in the last 20 years: Tom Brady. With Brady in Tampa Bay and Newton in his place, the question now isn’t if Newton is good—it’s how good he can be in an offense authored by Bill Belichick. And, if Newton is to be maximized, what might that offense look like?
The Quarterback Run Game
There is no chance that Belichick starts a quarterback like Newton without incorporating the quarterback run.
Belichick always finds himself on the forefront of new metas as they bust onto the NFL scene. Across the course of his New England tenure, the Belichick offense’s defining characteristic is its lack thereof—its identity is hidden somewhere between its ever-shifting form and perennial dominance. The Patriots were rocking shotgun spread in the late 2000s and hitting Randy Moss on isolation routes on the outside or Wes Welker on the inside; by the 2010s, they went heavy personnel with two tight ends and targeted linebackers and safeties; in the middle of the decade, they were using committee backfields to disguise running game tendencies and maximize running back targets. Wherever there was an exploitable edge in offensive innovation, the Patriots were there.
The QB running game is an exploitable edge, though it isn’t particularly new. While the elite tuck-and-run quarterback was viewed as a once-in-a-generation player, the advantages of a running quarterback were always understood as a simple numbers game, and was utilized at lower levels of football with great success. Folding a successful QB run game into NFL passing concepts took time, as advanced college offenses both propelled more QB prospects into the league, and leaked upwards into NFL playbooks as well. Now, when you look at the top quarterbacks in the NFL—Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson—the common thread is their ability to create with their legs.
For as long as Brady captained Belichick’s offense, it couldn’t access the advantages of the QB run. Brady lacked the requisite athleticism. But when Belichick had to use a different quarterback—like Jacoby Brissett in 2016, when Brady was serving a suspension in the first four weeks of the season—he turned to the QB run to keep his offense humming.
In this game against the Texans, Belichick ran TE reverses, jet sweeps, pistol sets, triple options. It was a kitchen sink effort, and it put up 27 points while his defense blanked the Brock Osweiler-led Houston offense. It wasn’t pretty or elegant—more a chuckle-worthy trivia answer than a performance that registered on the radar of Belichick’s greatest wins. But now, it matters.
Newton was the best running quarterback of the last decade. He has three of the six seasons in which a quarterback rushed for more than 700 yards and the only two seasons in which a quarterback rushed for double-digit touchdowns. Only Jackson’s two seasons in the pros have seen more rushing attempts than Newton’s 2011, 2012, 2015, or 2017 seasons. Nobody saw the volume he did; nobody saw the output he did; and nobody enjoyed the longevity he did.
It may feel odd to discuss longevity given Newton’s current health situation, but we should. Despite his usage as a short-yardage runner, his high hit total on both sacks and designed runs, and the mileage on his arm, Newton missed only six games across his first eight seasons, and never more than two in one season. That is stunning availability for any quarterback, let alone one not protected from hits by his offense and skill set.
Newton is such a good runner, and possibly such a durable runner, because of his frame. Unlike many running quarterbacks who have wiry, WR-like builds (think Jackson) or squattier RB-like builds (think Wilson), Newton is built like a defensive end. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Newton does not get hit by safeties and smaller linebackers—he delivers the punishment, initiating the contact and arriving with more power. That an athlete of this caliber ended up at QB is nearly inexplicable, but in that he did, he alone was suited to reveal just how valuable the QB run could be.
Newton is at his best on option runs. A smart and decisive runner with great second-level vision and instincts, the looming threat of Newton holds defenders in place and freezes their feet, creating running lanes of which both he and the players in his backfield can take advantage. In his rookie season, the Panthers based their running game out of the zone read, but with motion, traditional and shotgun sets, and a variety of option reads, kept linebackers’ heads spinning.
Throughout the years, Newton would continue to be used on every variety of designed QB run. Under Mike Shula’s 2015 offense, the Panthers moved further from option runs to give Newton more power looks, placing his power behind pulling linemen and relying on confusing keys to freeze linebackers and break Newton into the third level. Again, the meat and potatoes was dressed up with weird backfield sets and pre-snap motion—anything to get a second-level defender thinking, for one extra second, about something that prevented him from keying on the run.
We should synthesize and define a tenet of the QB running game here: by manipulating second-level defenders, you can beat them without blocking them. This gives you a numbers advantage and the potential for big plays.
Newton’s Passing Game
And most recently, Newton’s 2018 season—the last full season of football he played—was proof that Cam still had it. Across the first eight games of the season, Newton and the Panthers went 6-2: Newton was 10th in QB rating and ninth in completion percentage, and was leading all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yardage. He was on pace for one of his most efficient seasons as a passer, as well as another 700 yard rushing season.
But Newton’s shoulder health was already problematic. He was pulled for Hail Marys during the Panthers’ winning stretch and saw his practice reps managed. In a Week 10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in which Newton got walloped by T.J. Watt, Newton’s shoulder became a prohibitive issue. He couldn’t drive the ball downfield, stopped producing on designed runs, and saw his already shaky accuracy drop off even further.
That shoulder injury obscured just what could have been in 2018 under OC Norv Turner. With new weapons at WR in D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel—even in their youth, perhaps the best set of WRs Newton had in Carolina after Steve Smith’s departure—and an offensive designer willing to unlock Newton with play-action, the Panthers’ passing game suddenly became an extension of their running game. With RB Christian McCaffrey and TE Greg Olsen thrown into the mix, no team had as many players who were as dangerous with the ball in their hands as the Panthers in 2018, so they ramped the backfield shenanigans up to an 11, forced defenders to make bad decisions in space, and attacked leverage mercilessly.
This season could have been the one to topple many miscast Newton narratives. Considered a deep passer who gravitated to contested catches during the Shula-era offense, Newton measured out as one of the most aggressive passers in the NFL. He was top-five in passes thrown into contested windows in both 2016 and 2017; he was outside of the top 10 in 2018. In 2016, he was fifth in the league in passes attempted more than 20 yards downfield; by 2018, only Nick Mullens attempted fewer passes deep downfield.
But Newton was never a particularly successful deep passer, save for his 2015 MVP season. His velocity was better used to attack windows in the quick game or to throw layered passes on intermediate crossers, rather than on deep bombs. Instead of using play-action to put Newton on deep rollout drops and encourage long shots to heavy-footed power forwards in Benjamin and Devin Funchess, Turner and the 2018 offense used backfield deception to freeze defenders and attack isolated defenders with conflicting run/pass responsibilities. After consecutive seasons of below-average PA usage and average production, Newton jumped into the top 10 in PA usage in 2018, and saw a huge jump to his completion percentage (8.9) on such plays.
Here, we can return to our tenet of the QB running game: by manipulating second-level defenders, you can beat them without blocking them. This gives you a numbers advantage and the potential for big plays. In Newton’s 2018 season, with his play style, his offensive coordinator, and the weapons available to him, we saw this idea bleed into the passing game as well. The 2018 Panthers preyed on linebackers as well as any offense in recent league history: the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles with their RPOs, the 2019 Baltimore Ravens with their QB runs, and the New England Patriots of the mid 2010s.
And that’s the dirty secret of our tenet of the QB running game: it doesn’t belong to just the QB running game. It also belongs to the Run ‘n Shoot offense and their option-heavy approach to route-running, from which Belichick has been grifting throughout his generations of shifty slot receivers. It is the foundation of empty sets out of 21 and 11 and 12 personnel, a common thread of Belichick’s 2010 offenses. The game is about creating space, identifying matchups, and having the talent to win those matchups and maximize the space. There is nothing new under the sun in the NFL, and everything the light touches has belonged to Belichick in the last 20 years.
This is why concerns regarding Newton’s fit are foolhardy, and eyebrows raised at the Patriots’ weapons are wasted. Despite a worse supporting cast and worse offensive coaches, Newton has excelled at exactly that which Brady excelled over their storied careers: identifying and exploiting matchups. But unlike Brady, Newton brings a self-generated matchup conundrum that even Belichick, for all of his devious machinations, couldn’t replicate: he adds the dimension of the QB run. Now, when defenses look to run “1 Double 11” to bracket Julian Edelman in the slot, they lose the extra man needed to defend Newton on a zone-read run. Now, when linebackers see Newton pull the ball out of the mesh point, they can’t bail and sink underneath N’Keal Harry’s deep slant pattern without first respecting the threat of Newton’s tuck and run. Newton is a walking microcosm of the very foundation of Belichick’s success as an offensive designer, and if healthy and available next season, he only amplifies Belichick’s power.
The only way this doesn’t work is if Newton is unhealthy. In that we’ve yet to see his shoulder survive a full season, or confirmed that he’s athletically viable following the Lisfranc foot injury in 2019, there is reasonable doubt. But Belichick and the Patriots didn’t sign Newton on a Sunday in late June because they were bored, or because they wanted to cast a smokescreen over their punishment for last year’s cheating scandal. They signed him because he will immediately produce a more dangerous offense than any other quarterback option on the market or on the roster.
If Newton is healthy, the Patriots offense will be good.