| USA TODAY
It all started so with so much promise. The creativity, the versatility, the new flavor.
The New England Patriots and Cam Newton couldn’t have seemed more perfect for one another.
Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needed to rebound from their breakup with Tom Brady. Newton craved a fresh start after the Carolina Panthers kicked him to the curb.
Belichick saw Newton as a leader capable of helping mask roster deficiencies just as Brady had for decades. And Newton believed the Super Bowl-winning coach and his staff to be the ideal group to position him to resurrect his career.
But the highlight plays, the megawatt smiles and words of praise with which they ushered in the season — they all seem like distant memories now.
But Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the 33-6 thrashing by the San Francisco 49ers — the worst home loss under Belichick, and the second-largest margin of defeat of his 21-season tenure — it felt as if galaxies separate the Patriots from their glory years.
As they lost their third straight game — their longest skid since 2002 — the Patriots simply looked lost.
Lost was Newton as he delivered an ugly performance, completing only nine of 15 passes for 98 yards and three interceptions while rushing for only 19 yards on five carries. He couldn’t have looked more uncomfortable in New England’s offense.
Lost were New England’s pass-catchers, who struggled to win matchups and create game-changing plays on the few opportunities they encountered.
Lost were the Patriots’ defenders, who surrendered 467 yards and three touchdowns to an offense led by former teammate Jimmy Garoppolo.
Lost were New England’s coaches, who appeared uncharacteristically inept when it came to making in-game adjustments.
Lost was Belichick when trying to assess the woeful performance. When asked whether he was surprised by how poorly his team had played, the coach stared into nowhere for eight full seconds before offering, “I don’t know.”
Eventually, he surmised, “We need to find a way to play better than we did tonight, coach better than we did tonight,” with his team on its first three-game losing streak since 2002.
“There’s not much else to say about it,” Belichick said. “(The) 49ers are a good team. Kyle (Shanahan) did a good job, as he always does. We didn’t do enough.”
It didn’t help matters that nearly 3,000 miles away, Tom Brady had just thrown for 369 yards and four touchdowns while leading his new teamm the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to a 45-20 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.
As he did, Brady seemed to take another step toward answering the question of whether he was a system quarterback in New England or simply great in his own right.
Meanwhile, the systems that for years had produced efficient offenses regardless of the pieces surrounding the quarterback, and dominant defenses despite ever-changing faces, appeared aimless and disjointed.
The Patriots can’t use losing defensive standouts to free agency and to coronavirus opt-outs as an excuse. On Sunday night they faced a 49ers team that has lost eight season-opening starters to injury.
The Patriots let a backup running back, Jeff Wilson Jr., gash them for 112 yards and three touchdowns while also allowing a rookie wide receiver, Brandon Aiyuk, rack up 115 yards on six catches.
But Newton’s play proved most concerning. Sunday continued a downward trend for the 10th-year veteran, who opened the season displaying rejuvenated, dual-threat capability as McDaniels expanded the playbook to take advantage of his athleticism. After missing a game following his positive test for COVID-19, however, Newton has looked awful as a decision-maker and tone-setter of the offense. Having prided himself on ball security to start the season, Newton has now thrown five interceptions and no touchdowns in his last two outings.
For a sixth consecutive game, New England has failed to score a first-quarter offensive touchdown. The Patriots were 1-for-6 on third downs against the 49ers and never reached the red zone.
Each week, Newton’s passer rating has steadily declined. On Sunday, it was a ghastly 39.7.
Newton is well aware that this isn’t the player the Patriots envisioned him as when Belichick and McDaniels entrusted the offense to him rather than holdovers Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham.
“Very disappointing, but we’ve just got to do better,” Newton said after the game. “One thing that can’t happen is, I can’t allow myself to feel sorry for myself. I know what the issue is and you just have to attack it and do better.”
“Me not playing good. It’s simple. Play better,” he said. “I can’t speak for everybody. I just stick to the man in the mirror, and I wasn’t good enough. In no way, shape or form did I put this team in position to compete and there’s no excuse. This is the National Football League and a lot is put on the quarterback to deliver, and I haven’t done that. I know moving forward that I have to do better.”
Newton insisted that he feels fine physically.
“It’s a lot of it mental,” he said.
And that certainly seems to be the case. Newton appeared unsure of himself, his receivers and how to react to what the defense threw at him.
Unlike the Newton of old (and the first couple weeks of this season) when he would tuck the ball and run if he didn’t see what he liked, steam-rolling defenders for first downs and touchdowns, the quarterback either forced throws into double coverage and turned it over or hesitated before hurling the ball with desperation and poor technique. He bounced passes at his targets’ feet or sailed throws over their heads.
Newton certainly could have used some help — from his pass-catchers, who created little separation on their routes, and from his play-caller, whose creativity and flexibility paled in comparison to that of Kyle Shanahan. As the 49ers’ lead swelled, the Patriots’ play selection shrank. The run-pass options and the play-action pass plays that Newton has excelled at executing all vanished.
But regardless of the play calls and unheralded teammates, the Patriots are counting on Newton for better. They expect him to elevate the unit, and to, at the very least, avoid disastrous situations. On Sunday, he didn’t do that.
Late in the game, Belichick walked over to Newton, who sat on the bench with a dazed look on his face, and patted him on the leg before telling him Stidham was taking over. Stidham proceeded to throw his fourth interception in 27 career pass attempts.
But after the game, Belichick said, “Yeah, absolutely,” when asked if Newton would remain his starter. And that’s likely largely because New England’s options are so thin.
The Patriots may look nothing like their former Super Bowl contender selves, but the AFC East certainly remains winnable. And so, scrapping the Newton experiment to watch Stidham throw more interceptions makes little sense this early in the season.
And with goals of extending his career well beyond this season, Newton isn’t ready to throw in the towel either.
So, he must conduct a thorough but speedy self-evaluation and recalibrate himself. Sunday night, he explained that he knows what the problem is.
“I don’t think it’s anything with mechanics,” Newton said. “It’s seeing the situation at hand, and I caught myself just pressing too much. The energy has definitely been off for me, and at times, it’s not rewarding when you’re just going out there with this aura about yourself that’s not you. I love playing this football game. I have fun playing this football game, but the performances here hasn’t been somewhat delightful for me to have fun in doing so. So I just got to be better. ”
After 20 years of dominance and six Super Bowl rings under Brady’s leadership, the Patriots find themselves in foreign territory at 2-4 and looking up at Buffalo and Miami in the division standings.
However, for Newton, this task isn’t all that unfamiliar. For years, he put the Panthers on his shoulders, used his arm and legs to keep defenses off-balance and flexed his way into the end zone.
Newton must now summon the same type of heroics while letting his instincts take over.
Now, in perhaps his final opportunity to revive his career, he must fix himself so he can help rescue his new team from the perilous position in which it now finds itself.