It almost makes too much sense. Cam Newton, Superman, is a New England Patriot. And in the year 2020, this is exactly the kind of move we should have expected. Many did, and yet it still felt like such a longshot. Clash of cults of personality aside, there was always a strictly football-related reason for this to happen. The fact that the actual deal is good for both sides is just an added bonus.
New England Patriots Signing Cam Newton is Perfectly 2020
How Did We Get Here?
What an offseason it has been! We’ve seen a quarter of the league’s projected starters entering 2019 change teams, including a wild four-team swap with New England and 75% of the NFC South. Tom Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the shockwave of the off-season; if only slightly edging the Houston Texans swindling themselves out of DeAndre Hopkins.
Tampa Tommy is like the prodigal son going to the Darkside (which would have worked so much better had he joined the Las Vegas Raiders). Newton to the Pats is like, well T’Challa taking over for Steve Rogers. Yes, it’s on the nose, but it’s so very accurate. How else do you describe the expressive Newton heading to the most buttoned-up operation in the NFL?
What’s even better is it is two polarizing entities of opposite ends joining into one. The Patriots have been the bully on the block for much of the past 20 years. This, and a generous helping of sketchy deeds, has led to a buildup of resentment from those on the outside.
Newton, for all his charitable deeds, is more known for his scarves and attitude after losing Super Bowl 50.
Neither man is perfect. Brady was directly indicated in his fair share of the scandals during his time in New England. And, if we’re being honest, the worst Newton has done was his interaction with a female reporter a few years back. He laughed at the depth of her question and said it was “funny” a question like that came from a woman.
But on the football field, both of these men have set records.
Why It Will Work
Brady has the edge in accolades, sure. But even he has conceded it is at least equal parts situation as it is his given talent, effort, preparation, etc. Newton, if healthy, offers the total opposite. A supremely gifted athlete, he reached the edge of the mountain top without the level of coach and system he will have around him next year.
That isn’t a knock on what the Ron Rivera Panthers did either, they ran a system they felt gave them the best chance to win. The issue was they operated like Newton was a rookie for too long, not surrounding him with enough talent at receiver and/or a proper offensive line. His development seemed to stall as the Panthers found their formula.
One thing we know about the Patriots, they know the formula changes from year to year. No team has been better at adapting to their personnel.
Josh McDaniels is a very underrated part of why this will work. He was able to get seven wins out of a second-year Tim Tebow back in 2011. That was ten years ago. But Newton, a former MVP, is far and away a better passer than Tebow ever was.
People also forget the year Newton was having before he got injured in 2018. Carolina was 6-2 with Newton completing 67.3% of his passes for 1893 yards, 15 touchdowns, and four interceptions. He added another 342 yards and four scores on the ground. He over 68 percent of his passes in his remaining six games, but only threw nine touchdowns to nine picks and the Panthers went winless.
What’s The Problem?
That depends on what you thought of Brady last season. He started the season completing 64% of his passes for 2251 yards, 13 scores, and four interceptions over the first eight games. But he finished throwing for 1806 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 4 more picks while completing just 56.9% of his passes. The Patriots went 4-4 over those final eight.
Was that all Brady? He is, after all, in his 40s and has played over two and a half regular season’s worth of playoff games. It’s perfectly reasonable his abilities are in decline.
But New England lost Rob Gronkowski to retirement then lost Antonio Brown (one game) and Josh Gordon (six games) to personal issues. Julian Edelman was still around, but there aren’t many quarterbacks who can overcome that kind of talent drain before and during the season.
Newton’s health will be the biggest deterrent to any success. But he’s been out since September last year and has been seen working with Odell Beckham. Keeping him that way is paramount and dependant upon them either finding upgrades or guys like N’Keal Harry and free-agent addition Marquise Lee stepping up. Edelman and Mohamed Sanu will serve as the vets but the big hole is at tight end.
The offensive line is the bigger concern. Brady took 17 of his 27 sacks over the back half of the year. That line lost center Ted Karras and didn’t add anyone in free agency or the draft until the sixth round. They kept Joe Thuney, though.
The defense underwent a facelift but should be a smoother transition than anything the offense will go through. New England took defensive players with their first three picks and all are expected to contribute early. That’s good with the losses New England suffered at linebacker. Boasting one of the best secondaries in the NFL, though, they should be just fine.
Superman is a Patriot
Cam Newton has had to carry his offenses for much of his career, literally. In New England, he will get a chance to be a part of the machine. They will cater the offense to him week-to-week. His athleticism gives them an added dimension they didn’t have (or need) with Brady. He would also be the first non-Patriots draft pick to start for the team since Scott Secules in 1993.
Doubters will point to Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer and say Newton isn’t a lock to start. But as long as he’s healthy, neither the second-year Stidham nor the journeyman Hoyer is beating him out. The Patriots don’t need the publicity this brought (even with the penalties handed down) but Belichick would love the prestige winning with Newton would bring. We know what’s really on the line here.
Are you ready for some fooooootbaaaaaallll? Different football that is! This 2020 movie keeps on rolling and the upcoming NFL season doesn’t lack suspense. When will players report to camp? What will camp look like? Where will Cam Newton land? Will Colin Kaepernick sign with a team? This will be one of, if not the most anticipated football seasons ever because of the unknowns. Not to mention HBO has recently announced their acclaimed show Hard Knocks will feature both LA teams, Rams and Chargers.
We can’t talk about the upcoming football season without mentioning sports’ nemesis: COVID-19. That’s why we’re at this point. March 12th, 2020 the day sports stopped. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci has indicated the NFL should take the bubble approach or not have a season at all, according to an MSNBC article.
Bubble-ing Over: NFL Season at Risk?
Is the Bubble Viable
The NBA and NHL have already set COVID-19 parameters for the bubble when those respective leagues return to action. With the number of personnel and players for each of the teams, it’s doable. Look at an NBA team, for example. There are only 15 players on a roster for which only 13 are active. Along with coaches and trainers, you’re dealing with about 25 or so people per team. Not to mention the facility staff. Other than the players on the court, social distancing in this environment is challenging but can be done. Even with the measures that the NBA has taken, nobody can say that it will prevent the players from contracting coronavirus.
Looking at the juggernaut that is the NFL, there would need to be one big bubble! Just one team consists of more than two NBA teams combined. There are 90 players alone that report to training camp, which is cut down to 53 by the start of the season. Social distancing? There’s no way this is possible in the sport of football. Sure, the NFL has already suspended combined team practices. You still have over 100 people on the field together.
What about when the season starts? When the NBA restarts on July 31st all the games will be played in the Walt Disney dome in Orlando, FL. It’s hard to envision one central location for the NFL season. I’m sure most people are asking how is this viable? Even the Hall of Fame Game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys has been canceled. Though it was the Hall of Fame’s decision to do so, it could be foreshadowing of what’s to come. Being the billion-dollar industry the shield is, commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL will find a way to pull it off.
How Will the Players React
Even though these are superior athletes, concerns still high for their health and well being. Not only for them but their families as well. Three coaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have contracted COVID-19. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott tested positive for the virus last week and has recently voiced his concerns. New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins also made a statement indicating football is non-essential and shouldn’t go on if it’s not safe. The league will surely develop a protocol to ensure to keep players, staff, and fans alike as safe as possible but will it be enough.
There’s always the unknown and human nature. There will be parameters and set rules in place but players will push boundaries. Like the old saying goes, “rules are meant to be broken.” Per Kevin Seifert of ESPN, the NFL has already announced plans to start on time next month. It’s like being in the Forex market trading but instead of trading currencies, it’s people. The reward is greater than the risk, we’ll training camp is around the corner, we’ll see if the NFL will “take profit” or “stop loss.”
Our Best and Worst series is in full bore. We’ve already covered the AFC and NFC North, the AFC and NFC East, and we just finished our AFC South entry. We now turn our focus on the NFC South, a division that would be up for the “Most Dramatic Changes” award if such an award existed. Quarterback changes, roster overhauls, and record-setting contracts, this division has it all.
Best and Worst of Free Agency: NFC South
Best Move: Upgrading at RB
Surely there will be some who will look at this and immediately question how is going to a running back rumored to be dealing with a degenerative knee disease an upgrade over the back the Atlanta Falcons made (at the time) the highest paid in 2017? When the new guy is Todd Gurley and the last guy was Devonta Freeman, that’s how.
The Los Angeles Rams parted with the former Offensive Rookie of the Year (2015) and Offensive Player of the Year (2017) largely due to uncertainty around the long-term health of his knee but fiscal motivations were not absent. Freeman (494 total touches, 2339 scrimmage yards over the last three years) has dealt with injuries that caused him to miss all but two games in 2018. If Gurley (912 total touches, 4988 yards since 2017) is close to his old self the Falcons won’t experience any dropoff and may see better production.
Worst Move: Half Addressing Pass Rush
Yet another where readers may be scratching their heads. After all, Atlanta signed free agent Dante Fowler to a three-year deal worth up to $48 million. Unfortunately, that’s about all they have done to address the issue. After they recorded more sacks than the woeful Miami Dolphins, one guy isn’t going to be enough.
Fowler had 11.5 sacks in 2019 and that his presence will help immensely. But Atlanta let Vic Beasley walk. Despite his inconsistency during his time in Atlanta, he had a strong finish to last season and led the team with eight sacks. They lost another six combined sacks between Adrian Clayborn and De’Vondre Campbell. The 16th-overall pick will be very useful.
Next Move: Lockdown the Corner
A theme we have visited elsewhere, Atlanta has a glaring need for some help on the corners. They finished 2019 ranked 22nd in passing yards allowed. Some of that was thanks to a lackluster pass rush. But none of their corners played particularly well. Desmond Trufant (Detroit Lions) was their best corner and he was only available for nine games.
Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson aren’t an intimidating trio by any stretch. Wreh-Wilson only allowed quarterbacks to complete 45 percent of passes in his direction but was only credited with being targeted 33 times, or five fewer times than Trufant who missed nearly half the season. Atlanta’s first two picks should be EDGE and cornerback, or vice versa.
Best Move: Bridging the Gap
Cam Newton is probably the greatest to ever do it for the Carolina Panthers. No player has the accolades or had the connection to the area he did. But that time is over and the Matt Rhule regime is getting off on the right foot with a player in Teddy Bridgewater who seems poised to pay off on the promise he had coming into the league.
Touted as an accurate, athletic pocket passer, Bridgewater got derailed by a knee injury that threatened not only his career but also his limb. He regained prominence with the New Orleans Saints filling in for an injured Drew Brees for five games. The Saints went 5-0 and Bridgewater completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 1205 yards, nine touchdowns, and two picks.
Worst Move: Repeating the Past
No, this isn’t about Christian McCaffrey’s (record-setting) contract. So far the Panthers plan is just as well thought out as the last one. They have a (potential) stud at quarterback and some weapons around him. But their fatal flaw will once again prove to be a lack of proper protection. Carolina traded guard Trai Turner and received tackle Russell Okung from the Los Angeles Chargers.
Not only is Okung a worse player (irrespective of position) but he is also five years older. The need for a tackle will often outweigh the advantage of a quality guard. But the difference in age (even if linemen can play longer) and the added salary make this look like a losing deal for Carolina and they still need more help protecting their new franchise passer. Also, don’t pay running backs.
Next Move: Replace Heart and Soul
Sounds easy enough, right? The reality of the situation is Luke Kuechly’s retirement is similar to Newton’s departure in that it marks the end of an era. The difference is the Panthers got to make the decision on Newton. Kuechly, who has dealt with numerous concussions in his career, made seven Pro Bowls in eight seasons and was named an All-Pro five times.
But accolades aside, the Panthers will need to find the leadership and dependability elsewhere. Carolina saw eight players leave on defense who started at least nine games. Granted, any time there is a coaching change a roster overhaul is to be expected. But Kuechly would have made the transition easier for new defensive coordinator Phil Snow.
New Orleans Saints
Best Move: Landing WR2
It’s not often that landing a secondary receiver deserves praise. But when that receiver will be with the Saints catching passes from Brees, exceptions are made. Emmanuel Sanders split 2019 between catching passes from Joe Flacco and Jimmy Garoppolo. To say Brees is an upgrade is an understatement.
New Orleans hasn’t had a capable complimentary option since Brandin Cooks left town. Ted Ginn in 2017 was the closest they’ve come. Sanders is a year older than Ginn was then, and is a more versatile receiver. A torn Achilles ended his 2018 early and he returned to put up over 800 yards and play in 17 games last season.
Worst Move: Choosing the Wrong QB2
Somehow Taysom Hill has convinced folks down in the Bayou that he is worthy of being the top backup option. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that he has franchise quarterback potential. Hill is a nice, versatile athlete. But he isn’t a full-time quarterback, let alone a starter. New Orleans gave it away by going with Bridgewater over the more familiar Hill when Brees went down.
Now, this is being stated with a full understanding of how the economics played into this. With Brees returning, retaining Bridgewater became impossible. But selling HIll as anything more than a gadget player (with Brees and Bridgewater still in limbo) was an oversell and if New Orleans stands pat at quarterback, they will regret it if Brees misses time again.
Next Move: Someone to Truzz
The Saints had the fewest rushing yards as a team in the three years since Alvin Kamara arrived. They clearly missed Mark Ingram and the energy he brought to the field and sideline. Latavius Murray gave New Orleans eight fewer yards than Ingram did in his final season. But the latter ran for over a thousand yards the two years prior and did so again with Baltimore last year.
If the Saints want to get the mojo back in their ground game the will try to find another runner with that same type of violent running style. Kamara remaining healthy is probably the bigger boost, but the need for a proper compliment to him cannot be overstated. For all their effort though, finding someone to match Ingram’s infectious energy could be close to impossible.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Best Move: Brady Bunch
Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the biggest move this offseason in the NFL, not just the NFC South. The only thing comparable is Peyton Manning joining the Broncos in 2012. This surpasses that by far but does have similar questions along with it. Among them is questioning how much Brady’s declining numbers are due to waning ability.
Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, (for now) O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate will make it clear if Brady is up to the task or not. It’s hard to say the six-time Super Bowl champ has ever had a more talented receiving corps. If there is one thing to complain about it’s the protection that wasn’t great for a more mobile Jameis Winston in 2019. Tampa might also want to finally find a running back.
Worst Move: Not Protecting the Franchise
Recurring themes are becoming a recurring theme. Another team (rightfully) making an investment in a franchise quarterback and surrounding him with weapons but failing to address porous blocking. Brady is 42. ‘Sack’ needs to be treated like the four-letter word that it is for this organization and, so far, their moves don’t show that.
Next Move: Fill the Gaps
Let’s not act like the NFL draft won’t provide the perfect opportunity to address the issue laid out in the previous section as well as address the lack of a run game. Tampa also needs some help in the secondary but they have youth there. Whatever they choose to do in the draft, the top needs to be the offensive line and secondary, in whatever order.
A sneaky move could be for the Bucs to take a pass rusher much sooner than anyone expects. Shaquil Barrett is playing on the franchise tag and Jason Pierre-Paul just re-signed for two years but is already 31. Tampa also lost Carl Nassib, their third-leading sack artist with six. Add pass rusher to the early part of the Bucs draft checklist.
Kyler Murray will be the Most Valuable Player in the NFL in 2020. Yes, we are months out from training camp, let alone the regular season. So much can change from basic cuts and trades to devastating injuries. But the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019 is uniquely outfitted to bring the award to the desert.
Sure, this sounds crazy now. The Arizona Cardinals just finished a 5-10-1 season. It was their fourth-straight losing season, and seventh in the past decade. But there were some mitigating factors (on top of Murray’s inexperience) that played a large part in that. Not the least of which is the defense that allowed the fourth-most points in team history.
Since this is about the MVP, an individual award, we can (somewhat) take his team’s success with a grain of salt and focus on Murray and why he makes sense for 2020 MVP.
Kyler Murray Will Be the Next MVP
Before we get into the numbers that Murray put up himself, let’s do a quick skim of the history of the MVP in the NFL. And we don’t even have to look too deep to recognize the pattern that has developed over the years. One that has shown a clear bias towards who will and won’t win the most-coveted individual award in the League.
Established in 1957 (yes, the award pre-dates the AFL-NFL merger of 1970), the MVP award has been awarded to the player thought to be the most indispensable to his team. That has usually been an offensive player. More often than not, that has meant awarding a quarterback. More specifically, 38 quarterbacks have been named MVP compared to just 16 running backs.
That pattern has through recent times as quarterbacks have won every MVP since Adrian Peterson won it back in 2012. Before him, it was Shaun Alexander (05) and LaDainian Tomlinson (06) winning back-to-back. But this isn’t the biggest historical factor leading to this proclamation. We only need to look at the past few years to find that.
The past two winners of the coveted award were Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. Aside from both sharing the NFL’s glamour position, they both won the award in their second season. Unlike either Jackson or Mahomes, however, Murray started every game of his rookie campaign, perhaps giving him a leg up in development.
Murray enjoyed a fantastic collegiate career at Oklahoma playing for Lincoln Riley. His dynamic skill set made him the perfect fit for Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid scheme and he proved it in 2019. It was an uneven start but it didn’t take long for the jitterbug passer to show what made him special.
The Cardinals quarterback threw the sixth-most passes (542) in for a rookie in NFL history and joined some notable company in doing so, including a Hall of Famer. He joined Cam Newton and became just the second rookie ever to throw for over 3700 yards and run for over 540 yards, and the ninth player overall to do so.
Arizona, as mentioned, was bad on the whole and the porous offensive line allowed the sixth-most sacks. But they still managed to rank 10th in rushing. That was thanks in no small part to Murray who finished 36th overall in rushing yards. His dual-threat abilities were on full display during a three-game stretch where he averaged 10 carries per game.
He did all this with the terrible blocking, yes. But he was also the victim of depleted weaponry. His All-Pro running back David Johnson has been reduced to a shell of his former self. He saw himself replaced by his backup Chase Edmonds and later (and for good) by Miami Dolphins castoff Kenyan Drake. His top receiver was the ageless Larry Fitzgerald. That’s not good.
The Sooner the Better
Murray finished the season 15th in passing yards and completion percentage despite all the shortcomings around him. He’s in a system that is geared towards his strengths, something else he has in common with Jackson and Mahomes. This system has never featured the run and the defense will still be bad next season. In other words, he’ll need to throw a lot.
An infusion of talent is on the horizon via free agency and the draft. Depending on how they feel about young pass-catchers Christian Kirk, Damiere Byrd, and KeeSean Johnson they could focus heavily on the offensive line. They could also focus on cornerback and pass rush help because they will want to at least try to stop their opponents.
The success of Mahomes has been the result of the perfect marriage of a great situation and superb individual talent. And he still sat for a season behind Alex Smith. Baltimore overhauled their coaching staff to implement a system that would best utilize Jackson’s abilities (a novel concept, right?). But only after his rookie season.
Murray will enter his sophomore campaign with far more experience than either of those two. He’ll also have a system in place that was seemingly designed for him and that he won’t have had to learn in one offseason. All this along with the organization assumedly having a better understanding of what pieces he needs around him only enhances his prospects.
Kyler Murray, 2020 MVP
This is speculating to the extreme. No one knows how anything in the offseason will play out. But Murray answered two very important questions last season. He proved he could play in the NFL and he proved he can survive a 16-game season at his size. The next step will be improving his consistency and turning drives into points. If he does that, he will certainly be the MVP in 2020.
All of you “defense wins championships” folks will hate to read this but, the 2020 NFL off-season is just another dominated by quarterbacks. They’ve dominated the headlines and are the object around which NFL general managers formulate their off-season plans. Even the ones who are trying to build their defenses do so with the intent of negating opposing quarterbacks.
Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs just gave us our most recent example of this playing out. A stout San Francisco 49ers defense (2nd in yards per game allowed) couldn’t hold the third-year, former MVP down for an entire four quarters. In a league that has shifted so far towards favoring offenses, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Quarterback Talk Will Dominate Headlines Again
Since the league went to 32 teams, the NFL has seen its average pass completions per game jump from 20.1 in 2002 to 22.1 in 2019. It should also be noted that the 2002 number was a relative outlier. The average was around 19.3 and lower the six years prior and four years after the ‘02 season. But all this proves is that teams are passing that much more, right?
Wrong! In this same period, pass attempts have gone from 33.8 18 years ago to 34.9 this past season. That’s an increase of nearly three completions per game but only 1.1 more attempts. Put simply, quarterbacks got more accurate as displayed in the average completion percentage rising nearly four points from 59.6 percent to 63.5 percent.
Any number of metrics can back this up, but we only need to look at the headlines to see the trend. Mahomes winning Super Bowl MVP aside, the next biggest talking point has been about where Tom Brady will play in 2020. He’s 42 years old and didn’t have his best season (statistically or via the eye test) but that hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from churning.
Among the many hypothesized destinations have been the newly-dubbed Las Vegas Raiders, the Los Angeles Chargers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In addition to the potential drawbacks to making a large commitment to a quarterback who is less than a decade away from AARP eligibility, all of these teams have quarterbacks either in place or in limbo.
Those incumbents have also been the subjects of trade rumors in their own rights. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers recently moved (a la Brady) to Florida turning up the volume on speculation he could be elsewhere in 2020. Cam Newton has been tabbed by speculators to replace him in L.A. after his Carolina Panthers hired a new head coach and general manager.
It isn’t just the big-name guys getting all the headlines either. Cincinnati Bengals free-agent quarterback Andy Dalton, an average starting quarterback by most metrics, has been spoken of as a possible savior for teams viewed by many as being a “quarterback away” from being true contenders. Even perceived busts like Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans have been given new life by the rumor mill.
The NFL Draft is in April and guess what position the presumed first pick, Joe Burrow, plays. Yep, quarterback. A draft that is thought to be strong at wide receiver and other skill positions could have five passers go in the first round. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is one of those prospects and he is recovering from a serious hip injury just to illustrate.
Ohio State defensive end Chase Young at the top of a lot of big boards and the Bengals have a significant need for a pass rusher. But that is dwarfed by their need to upgrade the quarterback position. This illustrates the shift in ideology. Rather than build from the trenches, Cincinnati is set to pick Burrow based on one (historic) season.
Even supposed projects or guys missing something are getting first-round love. Justin Herbert was buzzing last year but needed the Senior Bowl to solidify his spot near the top of the draft. The Jacob Easons and Jordan Loves of the world, though, are first-rounders based more on potential than production.
This isn’t some earth-shattering revelation. The transition to a quarterback-driven league has been advertised and vocalized to the point that it’s almost fait accompli you’ll hear “it’s a quarterback-driven league” after a play. The announcers and pundits know it. The fans know it.
Even the league knows it. After revamping the protections on quarterbacks and receivers some years back, the NFL did so again recently. The most heavily debated being challenging pass interference. It’s a change that can and has aided defenses but was clearly developed with offenses in mind.
This might not even just apply to current and future quarterbacks either. It’s fair to wonder if the controversial Colin Kaepernick would be such a lightning rod if he played any other position. His very vocal supporter and former teammate Eric Reid did sign a multi-year deal last February.
Headlines Were Made for Quarterbacks
Again, this isn’t exactly new or revolutionary, we’ve always idolized the quarterback position. But it has become more intentional along with the devaluation of the running back has been the elevation of the quarterback. Super Bowl Sunday was just a reminder that while defense wins (conference) championships, it is quarterbacks that win Super Bowls.