This is going to be the most critical week of Cam Newton's career. He's going to hear about the mistakes, the benching, the losing and -- of course -- the future for him in New England. This is no longer a story about how Newton can work with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in a post-Tom Brady era. It's about whether Newton really is capable of still producing at the level we've all come to expect.
Newton had his toughest day of this season in the Patriots' 33-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. That afternoon worsened early in the fourth quarter, when Belichick replaced Newton in the lineup with backup Jarrett Stidham. Newton had done plenty to warrant being pulled, as he threw for only 98 yards and three interceptions in three quarters of work. The appearance of Stidham suggested the damage Newton had done might have seriously impacted his ability to lead this team moving forward.
Newton essentially picked the worst possible time to deliver an ugly performance. The Patriots are now 2-4 and in the midst of a three-game losing streak, which hasn't happened in those parts since 2002 (when New England lost four in a row).
"I have to deliver," Newton said. "I haven't done that. One thing that can't happen is I can't allow myself to feel sorry for myself. I know what the issue is. You just have to attack it and do better."
The crazy part about all this is that it was ridiculous to think Newton would've created so many concerns as recently as a month ago. The Patriots opened the season by winning two of their first three games. Their first loss came in Seattle, when the Seahawks thwarted a potential game-winning run by Newton on the final play. Their second came in Kansas City, when they faced the defending champions with Newton sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19.
Everything has changed for Newton since he contracted that virus. Prior to being sidelined, he darted around the field on designed runs and tormented opponents with his arm from the pocket. Newton also didn't miss an opportunity to remind his critics that he'd heard all the knocks on him when he was looking for a job this offseason, after the Carolina Panthers released him. He was feeling himself in a big way, as his coaches and teammates raved about his work ethic and leadership.
It's impossible to know how much COVID-19 impacted Newton. It is fair to say it's had a huge effect on this entire team. The Patriots have lost key starters and considerable practice time over the past few weeks. As good as Newton was in those early games, it's clear he isn't good enough to overcome those types of issues on a team that is showing more flaws with each passing week.
That's not a way of excusing Newton's play. After all, he only threw for 157 yards in an 18-12 loss to Denver last week, and that performance included two interceptions, as well. So Newton has no touchdown passes over the last two weeks to go along with those five picks and two home defeats. If that wasn't bad enough, he had to watch the 49ers romp while former Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo -- the man who was once the heir apparent to Brady in New England -- was on the other side.
When asked about his team's showing in this game, Belichick said, "We didn't perform well enough in any area: offense, defense, special teams, running, passing, defending the run, defending the pass, ball security, tackling, blocking, none of it was good enough. Maybe I left something out, but we just got to do a better job all the way across the board. I don't think everything was bad, but there was enough bad for the results to be bad, so we need to improve in all areas."
Added Newton: "I've just been pressing. I don't think it's anything with mechanics. It's seeing the situation at hand and I caught myself just pressing too much. The energy [has] definitely been off for me, and at times, it's not rewarding when you're just going out there with this aura about yourself that's not you. I love playing this football game. I have fun playing this football game, but the performances here [haven't] been somewhat delightful for me to have fun in doing so."
In fairness to Newton, this wasn't all his fault. The Patriots had well-documented problems on offense last season, and Brady could only do so much to deal with that. New England's best receiver, Julian Edelman, has been banged up and more prone to drops this year. The Patriots haven't found anybody else on the outside to be a consistent threat, and they've been looking for a reliable tight end ever since Rob Gronkowski retired after the 2018 season. Sure, they still have an assortment of versatile running backs and a creative offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels, but that only goes so far in today's NFL.
This league is currently about explosive offenses. The teams that can score at will are the ones that can contend for playoff spots and championships. The best squads in the AFC -- Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Tennessee and Baltimore -- all average 29 points or more per game. The Patriots are producing just 19.2 points a game, and they've only scored 28 total in their last three defeats.
Newton had the potential to make some of the players around him better simply because he can make things happen outside the pocket. He did exactly that in those early games, as he used his improvisational ability to make plays on the move. However, defensive coordinators obviously have adjusted. Newton has produced only one highlight over the last two weeks -- a 38-yard run against Denver -- and the Patriots offense has become so limited that McDaniels asked Edelman to throw two passes in that loss to the Broncos, one of which was a 16-yard completion to Newton.
The need to resort to such trickery at this stage means New England is already entering into desperation mode. There was some optimism surrounding this team after it played Kansas City tough, when it had to fly in on the day of that Monday night game and start Brian Hoyer after Newton tested positive for COVID-19 on a Saturday morning. All those positive vibes vanished after this weekend. A team that used to have so many answers for whatever ailed it is seemingly running out of viable options for success.
One thing we do know is that Sunday's benching won't open up a quarterback controversy. Newton is still a 31-year-old quarterback who has played in three Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl and won a league Most Valuable Player award. There is nobody else on the Patriots' roster with more talent, aside from Pro Bowl cornerback and defending Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. In fact, Belichick made it clear that Newton is still the starter and Sunday's change only happened because he wanted to get Stidham some experience.
That means we're about to see what Newton is really made of over the next couple months. He's always been the answer for a franchise in need of help, the dude who loved to envision himself as Superman under center. This is the first time we've seen him face such humiliation in the NFL. Even when the Panthers let him go, you could understand that his injury history and the arrival of a new coaching staff made him replaceable.
Sunday's benching was something different altogether. It was a wake-up call for Newton, that he's going to have to dig deeper to help a team that is in serious duress. As he said, "I can't speak for everybody. I just stick to the man in the mirror and I wasn't good enough. I didn't -- in no way, shape or form did I put this team in a position to compete, and that's inexcusable. This is the National Football League, where a lot is put on the quarterback and I have to deliver and I haven't done that. Quite frankly, it's evident. So here, moving forward, I know what the issue is, like I just said, and I just have to be better."
There's no doubt about that. Newton, whom the Patriots signed to an incentive-laden, one-year deal after so many teams passed on him this offseason, felt like a bargain in mid-September. Today, he was a full-blown disaster. There's still plenty of time for New England to figure out what kind of player Newton actually will be moving forward. But if Sunday was any indication, time is literally running out fast.