Cam Newton to the Patriots: What if it works?

Here’s a quick by the numbers look at the nine-year NFL career of Cam Newton.

There are seven active players who have been voted the NFL’s MVP. The Patriots saw one leave as a free agent. They’ve agreed to terms with one of the other six.

Tom Brady out, Cam Newton in. I don't know that there has been a more fascinating quarterback swap in … oh, the history of the world.

They’re not much alike, except that they were franchise quarterbacks for franchises that allowed them to leave. Brady has never had a full professional season — there have been 18 — in which he completed under 60 percent of his passes. Newton has completed more than 60 percent in only two of his seven full seasons. Brady has rushed for 1,037 yards in his career. The pride of Westlake High rushed for 1,447 yards combined in Years 1 and 2 with Carolina.

Brady alighting in Tampa Bay has been hailed as a coup. Newton landing in New England — which was about to go with the untested Jarrett Stidham, a rather lesser Auburn product — has the feel of a fait accompli. Bill Belichick loves reclamation projects, though his time with Antonio Brown lasted all of one game.

Back to that word — “fascinating.” It means “extremely interesting.” “Interesting” is the wiggle word we use about something notable that could be notably good or notably bad. That applies in both cases. There’s a reason both were free agents.

Brady is 42. He’ll be 43 when the NFL season starts, assuming it does. Who’s the greatest 43-year-old quarterback you’ve ever seen? Peyton Manning and John Elway retired at age 39. Johnny Unitas hung up his high-tops at 40. Brett Favre, who spent a while nearly retiring, finally did at 41. George Blanda had an astonishing five-game run for the Raiders in 1970 at 43, but we note two things: First, he technically was Daryle Lamonica’s backup, and second, three of those five games were won/tied by Blanda kicking field goals at the end.

Brady is coming off his one of his worst NFL seasons. He finished 18th in passer rating, 27th in yards per pass. Brady apologists insist that he wasn’t afforded an adequate supporting cast, but the cold truth is that the winner of six Super Bowls wound up in the wild-card round for the first time since January 2010, and his team scored no touchdowns over the final 44:56 at home against Tennessee. There have been times when Brady would elevate any/all personnel groupings; last year wasn’t among those.

Newton didn't play the final two games of the 2018 season, a year that saw the Panthers start 6-2 and lose the next seven. He worked only the first two games last season. Carolina lost both, and the second saw him look, to use the word that wafted across the NFL in its immediate aftermath, broken. He had shoulder surgery over the offseason; then he suffered a Lisfranc fracture in an exhibition game. His defenders say that two such injuries — one of the arm, the other of the foot — would have rendered any quarterback, especially one so reliant on his legs, substandard.

At issue is whether Newton, the strongest quarterback ever, can be the irresistible Newton of old when he can't run as fast. Owing to the NFL's pandemic lockdown, the Patriots haven't given him a physical. There was a time when Carolina sought to build around him; new management — incoming offensive coordinator Joe Brady arrives having coaxed utter greatness from Joe Burrow — surely was seeking a fresh start. Paying big money to re-up Newton didn't make much sense, especially if there are doubts about his fitness. And there are.

On the other hand: A healthy Newton can still be a force. He completed 67.9 percent of his passes and averaged 242.5 yards passing in 2018, both career bests. He’ll never work with the metronomic precision of TB12, but the Patriots didn’t become the Patriots by being capricious. They see a major talent. They see a 31-year-old who led Carolina to a Super Bowl and early an undefeated 2015 season. (The Falcons got in the way on the final Sunday.) If he’s not, er, broken, they’re smart enough to construct offense around his skill set.

Yes, that’s a big if. That’s what makes this move — and the Brady leap that preceded it — so intriguing. These are Face-Of-The-Franchise guys. These are among the 10 biggest names in the sport. (Not saying Newton’s career is on a par with Brady’s. Nobody’s is.) And yet: It’s not a given that either will be half as good as he has been. Brady is turning 43. Newton is coming off two major injuries.

A couple of years from now, we might look back on TB-to-TB and Newton-to-NE as much ado about not very much. We also might not.

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