Cam Newton's last couple of years have been, well, different from how he'd spent the first eight seasons of his NFL career.
Injuries preceded an unceremonious departure from Carolina, and a prolonged free-agent period followed. It ended with a significant request: Replace Tom Brady, keep the Patriots in contention and do it amid an ongoing pandemic.
Ultimately, Newton wasn't able to complete the Herculean task and frankly, it's more likely no one would have gotten the 2020 Patriots to the Super Bowl. No team had more opt-outs due to the pandemic than the Patriots, and after repeatedly pushing their chips to the center of the table in the final years of the Brady era, New England needed a year to retool.
Newton didn't exactly walk into a perfect situation in New England, but didn't have much in the way of options, either. The former NFL MVP played on a deal that only the lowest tier of backup quarterbacks might consider, but did so as a bet on himself. A year later, the Patriots are gearing up for Newton to make a similar wager with the hopes of seeing a better return.
"For me, the Patriots' organization has been impeccable," Newton said during a Thursday appearance on ESPN Radio. "So my time there has been everything I could have asked for. I guess it's now time for me to uphold my end of the bargain, through and through."
Early in the 2020 season, the Patriots had adopted a new offensive identity with Newton at the controls. New England won its opener over Miami with Newton rushing 15 times for 75 yards and two touchdowns, and nearly took down Seattle in a Week 2 thriller than ended with Newton mere feet from scoring a game-winning touchdown.
Then, COVID directly affected the team, removing Newton from New England's Week 4 game against Kansas City and sending the Patriots into a four-game losing skid. From there, the Patriots essentially played .500 ball, going 5-4 in their final nine games to finish 7-9.
The promise of a Newton-led Patriots team faded, and New England returned to its bunker to plan for the offseason. The Patriots emerged a stronger team, at least on paper, and Newton knows there's no more time for excuses -- especially after the Patriots drafted his projected successor in Mac Jones.
"I know who I am," Newton said. "At times, I do remind myself people forget who you are, and what you've done. So now I'm a position now where I need to be my best self. It's really put up or shut up time."
Jones lingers behind Newton as a symbol of New England's long-term plans, but unlike a rebuilding team, Patriots fans don't need to pin their hopes on the chances of a future season. On paper, they're strong enough to make noise in 2021 with Newton under center.
If Newton learned anything from his experience in Carolina, it's that things can go south quicker than most anyone expects. There's no use in hand-wringing about long-term security when there are games to win in the near future. With this in mind, Newton hasn't taken any issue with New England spending its highest pick on an addition to his position group.
"C'mon, man, let's be honest. I've been playing this game long enough to know, like, that's the right pick," Newton said. "I've said it numerous and numerous of times. What you're not going to get out of me is a disgruntled person. Mac and Cheese (Jones) is a person who, ever since I've seen him, has came on into the locker room with a business approach, doing the initiatives of learning his teammates, understanding that 'I've got to raise my level of play from the collegiate level to the professional level.'
"I'm here for him and as well as he's here for play, just like (Jarrett) Stidham, just like Brian Hoyer, it's no different. Our job is to be the best player that we can possibly be for the New England Patriots. No matter what is asked of us, it's our job to be that. So that's what it pretty much comes down to. So when Mac was picked, there was no type of ill-will feelings, and there's still no ill-will feelings because competition brings out the best in everybody."
Competition could arrive sooner than expected, but it's not worth spending a moment of Newton's time worrying about, not when his only guaranteed opportunity is directly in front of him. It's all about 2021 for the former Auburn star. As he said, it's put up or shut up time.