Will Cam Newton bounce back? Answer could determine Patriots' 2021 fate

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Want to generate a passionate reaction from New England Patriots followers? Just say the name Cam Newton.

What a lightning rod.

No player in recent memory has sparked such extreme reactions on both ends of the spectrum: "He's done!" vs. "He never had a fair chance!"

Patriots coach Bill Belichick's view, which ultimately is the most important, seems to be somewhere in the middle.

If Belichick believed Newton had little to offer, he simply could have moved on in 2021 with no strings attached and a big thank you. Instead, he surveyed other free-agent quarterback options, and the price to acquire them, and landed back on Newton as QB1.

But it was hardly a decisive vote of confidence.

Newton's one-year contract is modest -- which keeps the door open for another potential addition -- and is more stopgap than long-term answer. The Patriots will work to build on their experience with Newton in 2020, while also pursuing a quarterback of the future, possibly in the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, ESPN/ESPN App).

Barring something changing between now and the start of the season, such as the San Francisco 49ers taking a more aggressive tack in attempting to trade Jimmy Garoppolo or Patriots quarterback Jarrett Stidham making an underdog push for the top job, the most likely odds are on Newton to be at the controls of the offense in the season opener.

It would be Cam 2.0. In the spirit of finding the middle ground in a sea of extremes, let's examine some of the top narratives surrounding Newton.

He can't throw anymore

Some of Newton's misses were so bad, bouncing at the feet of receivers, they overshadowed his on-the-mark throws. It was something that seemed to be on Newton's mind late last season when he said, "I can still be more consistent. Some of the throws I had, I wish I could have had back."

He also had 13 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, tied for second most in the NFL behind Ben Roethlisberger, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Newton completed 65.8% of his passes last season, the second-best mark of his career. Tom Brady, in his final season in New England, completed 60.8%.

In the Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, for example, Newton delivered 28 accurate passes -- those deemed in film review to be hitting pass-catchers in a catchable window so they could make a play after the reception.

That was some of the best of Newton, balanced by games against the 49ers and Buffalo Bills in which he was pulled in the second half because they were blowouts and the passing game wasn't functioning at an acceptable level.

He played well before testing positive for COVID-19

This was something owner Robert Kraft said in his Q&A with reporters on March 31 at the conclusion of the NFL's annual meeting, noting how Newton's positive test "changed a lot when we were in a good place." The Patriots were 2-1 at the time, but lost four in a row en route to a 7-9 season.

In that sense, it's hard to argue with Kraft's view.

Newton was 62-of-91 for 714 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the first three games, while adding 35 rushes for 149 yards and four TDs.

However, Newton also had struggled in a 36-20 win against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3. He threw into triple coverage multiple times and forced an interception early while trying too hard to keep a play alive.

That was easily his worst game of the first three, sparking questions as to whether that was the beginning of a greater slide, regardless of his COVID-19 setback in early October.

Going back to his final six games of 2018, he has a 7-16 record and as a pure passer has 17 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.

His mechanics need a significant tuneup

Independent throwing coach Tom House, who has worked with Newton in the past, shared his view on the Patriots Talk podcast that Newton invested so much of his efforts in competing, it might have taken away from a focus on mechanics.

That might seem like a stretch on the surface, as the start of every practice usually includes a focus on mechanics. But it makes sense to think Patriots coaches picked their spots on how much to drill Newton on his mechanics, as the situation required added patience to get him up to speed in the offense. In other words, they probably didn't want to overload him.

Even the casual observer could see Newton's feet/bottom half were often not aligned with his right arm/upper half last season. He seemed to be making throws harder than they needed to be.

Newton, who threw eight TD passes and 10 interceptions last season, is taking steps to fine-tune his footwork this offseason, according to those familiar with his workouts.

He didn't have enough weapons

The Patriots' free-agent activity this offseason speaks loudest: They invested big money at tight end with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry and receiver with Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

Meanwhile, the team's top tight end last season (Ryan Izzo) was traded to Houston for a seventh-round pick, and the receiver who played the most snaps (Damiere Byrd, 89.1%) remains an unsigned free agent.

That's strong evidence Belichick believes he didn't give Newton the best chance to succeed last season. So while the Patriots ranked 32nd in touchdown passes and 30th in passing yards -- which by extension reflects on Newton -- it's not out of the question that it could look different with better pieces around him this season.

Does he still have the arm strength to throw deep?

One notable throw from last season was Newton's Hail Mary attempt at the end of a 27-20 loss to the Houston Texans on Nov. 22. He was at his own 38-yard line and the Patriots needed to get the ball to the end zone to have a chance.

Instead of stepping up to the 38, Newton unleashed his attempt at the 34 ... and it came down 10 yards shy of the end zone.

So he isn't Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. Or Josh Allen, for that matter. But in that same game, Newton lofted one of his best deep balls of the year -- a 42-yard, high-arcing rainbow to Byrd.

He can't run any more

Albeit against a downtrodden New York Jets team, Newton totaled 11 rushes for 79 yards in the 2020 season finale. That helped him finish the year with 592 rushing yards on 137 carries (4.3 average) with 12 touchdowns -- solid numbers for a 31-year-old said to be in decline.

Former Patriots defensive end Chris Long, on his Green Light podcast, has ranked Newton as the toughest ball-carrier to tackle over his career. But Long also expressed concern, noting despite his 2020 statistics, Newton doesn't look the same as when he had faced him.

"His body is just not there, and I don't know if it comes back," Long said. "I really believe the attrition has caught up to him."

Like most everything surrounding Newton, there's strong opinions on both sides.

One thing most can agree on, however: How Newton answers the questions will factor into what type of season the Patriots have in 2021.