The attribute most essential to Bill Belichick’s enduring brilliance is his endless curiosity about what can be done with 11 players on a football field. Though he is the oldest coach in the NFL, Belichick also has one of its most agile, malleable minds. He never falls behind trends and often sets them. His only constraints are the sport’s rules and his personnel.
The first hope of any football fan should be that the state of the country amid the novel coronavirus pandemic allows for a season. The second should be that Cam Newton is healthy again, at least an approximation of the player he was at his peak. The marriage of Newton and Belichick, which dropped out of the sky Sunday night, could produce some of the most fascinating, creative offense the sport has seen.
The Patriots signed Newton to a one-year, incentive-heavy contract – a no-risk, immense-reward deal that gives the Patriots a singular talent to replace Tom Brady. The Patriots adore unproven second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham and, from what some familiar with the team’s thinking have said, would have been comfortable with him taking over. But they could not pass on the opportunity to acquire Newton at such a low cost, and chances are the rest of the league will regret that it allowed it to happen.
Poor health is the only reason Newton was available. He won the 2015 MVP award, led the Carolina Panthers to an NFC Championship and became the best player in franchise history. He delivered on the promise he showed when the Panthers made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. He’s still just 31. He should be a franchise cornerstone, not a late-June bargain-bin find.
But Newton’s health has undermined him. He had been remarkably durable given his physical style, but the toll of those hits surfaced in recent seasons. He underwent major shoulder surgery after the 2018 season and played in just two games last season after suffering Lisfranc injury, which required surgery in December.
No matter where Newton landed, the hope was those operations and nearly a year of rest would restore Newton. He is one of the most thrilling players the league has produced. Now that he is with the Patriots, he becomes even more fascinating.
Newton opens new pathways for Belichick. There has never been a player exactly like Newton in NFL history, a quarterback who blends his arm strength, speed and power running. There have been plenty of fast, explosive athletes who play quarterback, particularly among the modern fleet of young passers taking over the league. Belichick hasn’t coached any of them.
The six Lombardi trophies he won with Brady ensure Belichick is not complaining. But the football geek in Belichick surely watched mobile quarterbacks from Randall Cunningham to Newton to Lamar Jackson and wondered what kind of devilish plan he could inflict on opposing defenses if he had a quarterback with a similar skill set.
The dumbest arguments in the coming days will be about how Newton will fit into the Patriots’ “system.” Belichick doesn’t have a system. He just happened to have the same quarterback for 20 years, and so the offense he built around Brady’s strengths just looked the same for all these years. But the Patriots broke ground with Brady, leading the league’s evolution to shotgun-based offense and the primacy of short, quick passes. They adopted a devastating two-tight end approach after drafting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and even in recent years, before last year’s frustrating season, have stood out for their offensive versatility.
But even as Brady increased Belichick’s chance at success, his lack of running ability limited offensive creativity in one key area. The next step forward, creating an offense around Newton’s dual-threat ability, is one Belichick hasn’t been able to take, and it’s far more exciting to watch than New England’s innovations under Brady. The Baltimore Ravens overwhelmed the NFL last season with an offense constructed around Jackson. The benefits of a running quarterback are exceedingly simple, yet they open so many different possibilities.
“The quarterback being able to move makes it to where the defense has to defend 11 people, not just 10,” Ravens backup quarterback Robert Griffin III said last year. “Traditionally in the NFL, they’ve only had to defend 10. So it’s not that defenses don’t know what to do. It’s that whenever they decide to do something, there’s going to be a weakness somewhere that we can exploit that teams that only play with 10 on offense essentially can’t exploit.”
Belichick has raved about Newton in the past, with good reason: In their limited meetings, Belichick could never stop him. Newton faced the Patriots twice, in 2013 and 2017. In those games, he completed 41 of 57 passes for 525 yards, six touchdowns and one interception while running for 106 yards and a score on 15 carries.
“I think when you’re talking about mobile quarterbacks – guys that are tough to handle, can throw, run, make good decisions – I would put him at the top of the list,” Belichick said in the week leading up to the 2017 meeting. “Not saying there aren’t a lot of other good players that do that, but I would say of all the guys we played recently in the last couple of years, I think he’s the hardest guy to [defend]. He makes good decisions, can run. He’s strong. He’s hard to tackle. . . . He can beat you in a lot of different ways. . . . I’m not saying the other guys aren’t a problem, because they are. But he’s maybe public enemy No. 1.”
Acquiring him was an only-in-2020 opportunity. If not for the coronavirus pandemic, it would have been simple for teams to determine Newton’s health, and if given medical clearance Newton would have presumably been a hot commodity in free agency, or in a trade before Carolina released him. With the challenges of administering a physical during the pandemic, teams could only guess. The fact that Carolina was willing to move on probably gave pause. But if he’s healthy, the Patriots just moved on from Brady by replacing him with another elite quarterback.
Belichick’s career offers a small hint at what he might concoct. During Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension at the outset of the 2016 season, the Patriots turned to third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett. The quarterback trap Brissett used for a 27-yard touchdown scamper was a play previously resigned to dustbins and high school fields.
That’s not to say Belichick will use that particularly play. It’s that with a quarterback of Newton’s talents, the Patriots’ offense may consist of designs borrowed, and then updated, from any era. “Probably the story of his career, from my vantage point, would be his attitude toward learning,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, a Belichick confidante, once said.
Belichick knows more football obscurity than anyone on the planet. The arrival of Newton in New England means we’ll probably see some of it on an NFL field, and that is a possibility worth hoping for.