Even since the Patriots signed Cam Newton in June, there was an assumption that he would replace Tom Brady as the team's starting quarterback in 2020. But when training camp started, it became clear Newton had to earn the job in New England by beating out second-year QB Jarett Stidham.
As usual with anything Patriots, it's been hard to read Newton's status and their comfort level in him with fewer than two weeks left before the team opens by hosting the Dolphins in Week 1.
Here's a breakdown of how things have gone down for Newton in camp and what that means for the regular season:
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How has Cam Newton performed in camp?
Early in camp practices, the Patriots made it seem like things were even between Newton, Stidham and Brian Hoyer. But that has changed quickly with Newton dominating the critical first-team reps after the first week.
Most beat reporters think Newton has all but won the battle, given he's been the only one in the battle of late. Newton, humbled after his release from the Panthers, the team who took him No. 1 overall in 2011, as of last week, didn't feel like he was the starter yet.
"Absolutely not. Every day is a workday for me," Newton told those reporters. "That label is not important to me right now. I have so much I need to get better at, so much I need to learn, so much I need to be comfortable with. Throughout this process, that's the last thing that I'm pretty much worried about."
As expected, Newton has needed time to learn Josh McDaniel's offense and execute it to his satisfaction. Fewer than two months in an unusual coronavirus-affected offseason is not enough for any QB to immerse himself in a complicated scheme with which he's not familiar.
The only things in Stidham's (and Hoyer's) favor of Newton have been the grasp of a system and knowledge of personnel with their varying degrees of experience in it. Newton has allayed the one overblown concern — that his mind-set and big personality would not mesh with coach Bill Belichick.
In terms of the intangible parts of the job, Belichick has had effusive praise for Newton, who has brought much-needed post Brady energy as a confident leader, something Stidham, seven years his younger, just doesn't have.
As far as Newton's passing and running, the real highlights have been behind the scenes. He's worked to develop chemistry with Julian Edleman and the rest of his receivers. Most important, there are no indications there are major lingering health issues with his shoulder or knee injuries to think he can rebound with his standout arm strength and athleticism.
How has Jarett Stidham battled Cam Newton?
Although Stidham reportedly wasn't feeling right with his leg a little more than a week ago, it's been his arm and decision-making that have let him down in a big way. With Newton still feeling his way through the offense, Stidham had every opportunity to by flashing as a passer.
Instead, he's made a lot more big mistakes than big plays in practice as every interception he's thrown being quickly documented. Stidham was a fourth-round pick for a reason — he had nice skill set and upside, but he's showing the mental issues related to accuracy that saw him go from potential first-rounder to a disappointing, regressing final season at Auburn.
Ever since Newton was signed so late, it was an indication that despite their steadfastness in saying they were OK with Stidham succeeding Brady, that was more to push Stidham for significant improvement. That has failed to manifest. Newton may not think he has done enough to win the job, but Stidham has certainly done plenty to lose it.
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Belichick has admitted he will get as creative as needed for New England to win games, and has proved that throughout his Hall of Fame career with ever-adjusting schemes and personnel. But the one thing that has never happened for him and McDaniels is needing to think about a QB platoon, with Brady being the one and only answer.
The AFC is home to Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson. The Patriots would have little shot at winning big trying to rotate a mobile Newton with a pure pocket Stidham, because as the old adage goes, if you need to use to two QBs, you don't have one good one.
This might have gotten the tiniest consideration early before Newton got his feet wet and before Stidham got submerged. Now that Newton is finding his stride and closer to a groove, it would seem totally un-Belichickian to need to force Stidham in as a No. 2 behind the new No. 1.
What kind of QB will Cam Newton for the Patriots in 2020?
Newton beating out Stidham is a minor hurdle in relation to navigating through a new conference. Consider the pressure of both limiting the Patriots' dropoff from Brady and rebounding from a washed-out 2019 season that put Newton's career at a crossroads.
There's been a perception that McDaniels and Belichick can get the best out of a healthy Newton, turning back the clock to his 2015 MVP season with the Panthers. But Newton isn't working with the best support system to lift him close to those league-best heights.
Other than Edelman at wide receiver the Patriots need veteran Mohamed Sanu and second-year first-rounder N'Keal Harry to be healthy and raise their games to round out their effectiveness in 11 personnel. The team also is undergoing a transition at tight end, with Devin Asiasi so far standing out vs. fellow rookie Dalton Keene.
In the backfield with Newton, James White is locked into being his key receiving outlet. But for the early-down and power running game Sony Michel (foot) and late addition Lamar Miller (knee) have had injury issues. Second-year Damien Harris has promise with a well-rounded game that is finally being untapped.
The offensive line has some good news with left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center David Andrews returning from lost seasons. But that group is also down a starter with Marcus Cannon opting out of the season.
There are many moving parts and unknowns for the Patriots around quarterback, on top of not knowing exactly how much they will incorporate Newton's running ability, a 180 from Brady. In typical New England fashion and then some, the team is hiding most of its cards well.
Would it surprise anyone if Newton went back to a smiling Superman? With his physical skills and a change of scenery in a well-devised, adaptable offense, it would not. Would it be shocking If Newton fell flat, either having more durability issues or losing his efficiency? In a passing game that relies much on the short-to-intermediate game, it would not.
With his wide range of outcomes, Newton is biggest wild-card player one will find anywhere in the NFL this season.
What would make the Patriots bench Cam Newton?
Newton winning the job doesn't necessarily mean he will keep it. If he gets off to a bad start, struggles with turnovers and costs the Patriots' chances to win games, they wouldn't be in Belicick's nature to shy away from change.
With the Seahawks, Chiefs and 49ers among the first six opponents, there's a good chance Newton will take some lumps when he's not facing the Dolphins, Broncos or Raiders in that stretch, all at home. The Patriots will be looking the bigger plays with Newton in there vs. Stidham That includes designed deep shots and undesigned runs that save broken plays.
New England, however, is known to be a detail-oriented and role-oriented operation under Belichick. Doing the little things and avoiding big mistakes carry as much weight and the positive plays. Newton might have already provided Belichick both style and substance with his intangibles, but he needs give the Patriots consistent high-level passing when it counts. Brady set an impossible standard. Newton needs to reach a reasonably high bar in his own way.
Once Newton starts to open the season, he would need to play below-average and the team would need Stidham raise his game above that at the same time before considering a QB change. It's more likely that Newton, with his wear and tear, has to yield with additional injury.
The Patriots have little invested in Newton in his incentive-laden one-year deal. The better Newton plays and the healthier he stays, the more the Patriots will win and the more he will make. But with their low risk, if it's evident he would provide a low reward, the Patriots can bench Newton, get one last good look at Stidham and then move on to either signing or drafting a true, longer-term replacement to Brady in 2021.
Newton has a golden opportunity that didn't look like it would be available early in his free agency. No pressure: His boom or his bust will only dictate the course of the Patriots for this season and the several that follow.