By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Cam Newton’s first career start for the New England Patriots certainly could have come under better circumstances – and I don’t mean that it was in an empty stadium in the middle of a global pandemic.
In his Patriots debut, Newton let the Patriots to a 21-11 win and 357 yards of total offense. That’s impressive in its own right, but even more so when you consider what kind of shape the rest of the Patriots offense was in heading into the game.
It’s no secret the team’s depth at that wide receiver wasn’t ideal to start the week, but the group took another hit on Friday when Gunner Olszewski was ruled out (and later put on IR).
That left the Patriots with just four active receivers for the opener, and only three who were healthy (N’Keal Harry was listed on the injury report with a shoulder injury). In addition, rookie tight end Dalton Keene was held out of the game with a neck injury. Newton was left with with just six true pass catchers, four of whom were beginning their second NFL seasons.
Compensating accordingly, the Patriots ran 11-personnel (3 WRs, 1 RB, 1 TE) on just 46-percent of their snaps (29-of-63). That’s almost 10-percent below the rate they used ’11’ last season.
Naturally, this led to a heavy focus on the ground game. Josh McDaniels chose to use Newton as the featured runner, despite the 31-year-old not having played a game in almost a year. Still, the Patriots quarterback gave as much of a beating as he took, averaging five yards per carry on 15 carries, punching it in on the goal line twice. It clearly didn’t impact him throwing the ball either – Newton posted the fifth-best completion percentage of his career (15-of-19, 78.9-percent), when throwing the ball at least 19 times.
Asked after the game if he felt like he ‘made a statement’ with his heavy workload, Newton simply replied, “I just wanted to win.”
When Newton did put the ball in the air, he looked to Julian Edelman early and often. Edelman was the target of seven of Newton’s 19 passes (63-percent). Newton only threw to one other wide receiver, targeting Harry six times. While Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd saw their fair share of snaps, neither saw a pass come their way.
It ended up working Week 1, but having a limited number of realistic targets (a.k.a. not spreading the ball) allows the defense to narrow in on certain players – something that killed the Patriots last year.
In addition to the limitations at wide receiver, Newton had to deal with an in-game revolving door at right tackle, as the competition for Marcus Cannon’s job is clearly continuing into the regular season. Jermaine Eluemunor started the game next to Shaq Mason, as we’d seen for most of training camp. However, the Patriots ended up using him in a rotation with rookie Mike Onwenu, who was primarily a guard in college. He barely saw time at tackle, even as recently as training camp.
So with limited options at receiver, and a rookie learning on the fly at right tackle for a good chunk of the game, in an offense he had just two months to learn, Newton still managed to lead the Patriots on what was overall an above-expectations performance.
Perhaps it helped that Newton has been in – and succeeded in – this situation before. The 2015 Panthers, despite going 15-1, may have had one of the worst offensive ensembles to reach the Super Bowl in the modern era. Newton won an MVP throwing to a 33-year-old Jerricho Cotchery, 30-year-old Ted Ginn, and rookie Devin Funchess. Nobody outside of tight end Greg Olsen had more than 44 catches that season.
So the question becomes, can he pull of that kind of trick twice? Granted, the Patriots offensive situation will likely improve. They’ll get Olszewski back, figure out who their starting right tackle is, and the rookies will learn on the fly. Still, this is far from the 2007 Patriots even when fully healthy, and if they’re going to find success against better teams than Miami, Newton will need to bring superstar performances week in and week out.