Cam Newton’s football future is hanging by a proverbial thread.
The New England Patriots appear to be sticking with him, but there’s been more than a little groundswell calling for a change to Jarrett Stidham.
Why not give the second-year quarterback a shot, given how poorly Newton played against the Cardinals last week? Really, how much worse can Stidham be?
To this point, the Patriots are publicly acting like they don’t want to find out, placing their support behind Newton.
So unless the Patriots throw a curveball against the Chargers — which isn’t out of the realm of possibility — Newton is the man for this pivotal two-game swing in Los Angeles starting Sunday.
And given the stakes both for him and the team, Newton, who has been dealing with an abdomen issue, dearly needs to get back on track.
Bad Cam is not an option in a must-win situation.
On paper, this isn’t the best matchup for him.
For the Patriots to have success against defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s aggressive four-down front and Cover-3 scheme, it’s going to require quick reads, quicker releases, and accurate passing to the backs on checkdowns or quick-hitters to receivers.
Newton does not have a quick release. He hasn’t shown a consistent ability to make quick reads, and his accuracy has been poor on the short passes.
On short throws, Newton owns a 77.4 passer rating, according to Sports Info Solutions. His 6.6 yards per attempt on passes delivered on one-step drops, three-step drops, RPOs and screens is one yard lower than his season-long average.
Then there’s Joey Bosa (7.5 sacks) and the Chargers’ monster pass rush that wreaks havoc with offenses in general. Bill Belichick called Bosa one of the most disruptive players in the league Wednesday. The Patriots’ ability to contain Bosa will go a long way toward Newton’s success or failure against the Chargers.
Rookie offensive lineman Michael Onwenu draws the short straw with that assignment, while Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and perhaps Jermaine Eluemunor will handle the rest. Defensive linemen Linval Joseph, Jerry Tillery and Uchenna Nwosu are the only other Chargers with 20-plus pressures this season, per Pro Football Focus.
In 2018, when the Patriots faced the Chargers in the AFC divisional round, Tom Brady carved up Bradley’s unit in a 41-28 win. He completed 34 of 44 pass attempts for 343 yards and a touchdown. He wasn’t sacked or even bothered by Bosa, Melvin Ingram — who is currently on IR — or anyone else.
Brady’s favorite receiver that day? James White, who had 15 catches for 97 yards. Julian Edelman also had nine catches for 151 yards, but he’s out Sunday on the COVID-19 reserve list.
It’s interesting to note Brady once again torched Bradley’s defense this season, as he threw five touchdown passes in the Buccaneers’ Week 4 victory over L.A. But the Chargers fall right into Brady’s quick-read, quick-release wheelhouse.
Newton? Not so much.
Against Cover 3, Newton’s numbers haven’t been woeful. But they’re not great, either. He has a 62.5% completion percentage, 66.9 QB rating with no touchdowns and four interceptions, according to Sports Info Solutions.
As for the Chargers, they’re allowing 6.87 yards per pass attempt, fifth-lowest in the NFL. That means no long gains.
“You’re not going to get a ton of big plays in the passing game on this team,” Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said last week. “That’s just not the way the scheme is built and the players play it. So, you’re going to have to navigate the down and distance to make sure you stay out of long yardage types of situations, and you’re going to need to be patient and continue to try to find profits on every play, while you’re handling a pretty damn good pass rush.”
So this could be more tough sledding for Newton, although he did fare well against a similar scheme when the Patriots fell just short of beating the Seahawks in Seattle. Newton looked pretty good in that Week 2 game against the Seahawks, completing 30 of 44 passes for 397 yards with a touchdown and a pick in the 35-30 loss.
Patriots safety Adrian Phillips is also very familiar with the scheme, given he played in it for six seasons with the Chargers before arriving in Foxborough. So between Belichick, McDaniels and Phillips, Newton, who said Thursday he has yet to play his best football, will know what he needs to be successful.
“This is a scheme we’ve seen a number of times. It’s amazing when you turn the film on and start watching, it presents the same challenges over and over again,” McDaniels said last week. “They’re very disciplined, they play extremely fast. It’s not an overly complicated scheme on a down-by-down basis. That doesn’t mean they don’t have things that challenge you here and there. They do.”
“And they’ll slip those in there, but they play very aggressive, they create a lot of penetration, and negative situations with their front, and they really make you be disciplined and patient in the passing game.”
If the four defensive linemen up front can create pressure, the rest may not matter. It could be a long day for Newton.
Is Newton up for the task? Is he even built to be successful against the Chargers defense?
The answers will come soon enough.