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Buffalo Bills opponent preview: Is Cam Newton finished?

We compare two weeks of Cam Newton’s time in New England to see what’s up with Tom Brady’s 2020 replacement

When Tom Brady left the New England Patriots it was generally assumed the Patriots were about to find a cliff. The last-second signing of Cam Newton wasn’t exactly felt to make up for the loss of Brady but make the cliff into more of a curb. And for the first few weeks he arguably delivered. Newton tested positive for COVID-19 and upon his return to the lineup he has not delivered. Reportedly asymptomatic and denying that the diagnosis has impacted his play, there’s no denying his performance has been drastically different. Let’s look at one game of each version of Cam and see what the Buffalo Bills might be up against.


Play 1

Unlike the last couple decades of Patriots games expect to see designed quarterback runs and option plays. At 4.9 yards per carry, Cam Newton is averaging about what he always has with the exception of his first two years in the league. Even then his best year was 5.8 in his sophomore season. He’s averaging ten carries per game in New England, which is roughly 33%...drum roll please...HIGHER than his career average. There’s possibly an argument that he doesn’t look as fluid as he used to but it hasn’t drastically altered his efficiency.

Play 2

Against Seattle, play designs helped make some easy throws for Newton but you have to give him credit for delivering where he needed to. At 68% completion and just shy of 400 yards on 44 attempts Newton had a big day in a shootout loss. A good deal of it was due to some pretty good synergy between the New England offense and their new quarterback. Between this and the new “Cam” plays like we see above, questions about the ability of head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to redesign the playbook seem to be in the past.

Play 3

Against Seattle, Cam Newton flashed his ability to avoid pressure and extend plays. This does create some difficulties in keeping Newton down as he has options no matter what the defense brings.

Play 4

Finally, another thing that occurred in the Seattle game was a good amount of downfield passes. Some of this is Newton anticipating the play and some of this is an excellent adjustment by his receiver. Overall, Cam Newton looked good against Seattle.

Play 5

Except for the Seattle game, New England has made its living on offense with passes under ten yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That portion of the old Brady offense has remained somewhat consistent. Quick, short passes designed for YAC are routine. Newton had 68% completion in this game as well despite it being arguably one of his poorer efforts. He’s dipped below that twice to around 60% but his overall average of 67% this year is that high for a reason. At the current rate this would be his second-best year ever and all thanks to the New England offense.

Play 6

Completion percentage discussion aside, Newton hasn’t moved completely beyond the blunderbuss accuracy reputation that haunted his career early on. For this play he handles the pressure well despite knowing he’s getting hit. It also explains the lack of velocity that leads to an underthrow. That said, you wouldn’t need to look too hard to find examples of errant passes without pressure.

Play 7

Aside from the lack of attention to Newton the defense plays on this snap, something to note is that Cam is looking for something on the right side and quickly determines it’s not there. There are plays where Newton takes his time making a decision and in this game at least one sack was completely on Newton taking his time. There are also plenty of plays like this one where he reacts very quickly to what he’s seeing and makes a decision.

Play 8

Remember that I picked one game pre-COVID and one post-COVID. This is the post game and this is a nice play by Newton. He sees the pressure fast, responds to it quickly and gains a huge chunk of yards with one of his more dynamic runs. He also had a run of 38 yards in this game after seeing a gigantic hole in the middle of the defense. What also can’t be overlooked is that he gave his receivers ample time to find some space. He looked to execute the play before scrambling.


Summary

It probably sounds like I’m saying “Cam Newton is still really good.” That’s not too far off the mark but I might remove the “really” part of that phrase. He’s still elusive at times, which allows him to extend passing plays or get yards with his legs. He’s hitting his targets at a higher than normal clip based on his career history. And he’s still a pretty tough player willing to take a hit to get the ball out. So why the tempered statement?

This isn’t a knock on completion percentage but as noted above the Seattle game was an anomaly in that Newton was regularly driving the ball downfield. Bills fans know all about the “Captain Checkdown” label and Newton has become that. If you had to guess what the biggest problem Newton faces with this style of play would you guess “the red zone?” You’d be right if you did. He has two passing touchdowns in five games.

Aside from the Seattle game he hasn’t eclipsed 162 yards in a game this season. And let’s just say Seattle has fallen pretty far from the Legion of Boom days. And let’s also just say that they played a lot looser on the back end than other teams as they had a good lead for a large chunk of the game. That does mean Newton can take everything that’s given to him, but several other teams just decided not to give it to him.

What gives then on my overall positive review of Newton with the clips above? My goal isn’t to suggest he’s good at everything. Not by a long shot. But he’s still good at plenty of things and if the Bills look past him it’ll be a problem. I don’t think they will though, and after five games with Cam Newton in the Patriots’ lineup the Buffalo Bills won’t have to guess about tendencies like their early season opponents.