FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Cam Newton takes the first offensive snap for the New England Patriots in Sunday's season opener against the Miami Dolphins, it will end one of the most impressive streaks in the NFL.
No longer will the Patriots be the undisputed home of the homegrown quarterback.
The Patriots haven't started a quarterback they didn't draft since Week 10 of the 1993 season, when veteran Scott Secules was filling in for injured No. 1 overall draft pick Drew Bledsoe. That's a 423-game stretch, with Newton decisively emerging to fill the void created by Tom Brady's free-agent departure to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The record might never be broken, especially in the age of free agency, considering the Dallas Cowboys were the next closest team with 227 consecutive starts by homegrown quarterbacks Roger Staubach, Danny White, Glenn Carano, Gary Hogeboom, Steve Pelluer, Reggie Collier, Kevin Sweeney, Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh from 1976 to 1990. Then came the Indianapolis Colts (Peyton Manning) with 208 from 1998 to 2010 and the Pittsburgh Steelers (Terry Hanratty, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Gilliam, Mike Kruczek, Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone) with 201 from 1970 to 1983.
Talk about good quarterback fortune in New England. After the franchise bottomed out in 1992, Bill Parcells was hired as coach, and he made the right call to select Bledsoe (over Rick Mirer) as the top overall pick. Once Bledsoe settled in after Secules, he held the position until 2001, outside of three starts by backup Scott Zolak (a 1991 fourth-round pick by New England).
Then a thunderous hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis changed history, injuring Bledsoe and opening the door for Brady, New England's 2000 sixth-round pick from Michigan. Brady missed all but a few snaps of the 2008 season with a torn ACL, so New England's 2005 seventh-round pick, Matt Cassel, took over.
Now it's Newton, who came to the Patriots in free agency from the Carolina Panthers. The 2011 No. 1 overall pick was named NFL MVP in 2015 but has been hampered by injuries, playing 16 games over the past two seasons.
Making a good impression
Further highlighting the dramatic manner in which the streak will end is how suddenly it all turned. The Patriots appeared poised to enter the 2020 season with 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham as their quarterback until Newton agreed to sign in late June for all the team could afford at the time -- a minimum-level contract with a base salary of $1.05 million and incentives up to $7.5 million. His primary competition, Stidham, went to a Boston hospital on the fourth day of training camp, and while tests on his leg were negative, he faded out of the quarterback competition.
So not only is Newton not homegrown by the Patriots, he has been with the franchise barely two months. Yet he quickly has won over teammates and coaches alike.
"Whenever you have a player like Cam who's a high-profile player in the league, I think along with him [come] expectations, and unfair judgments have been passed along the way, whether they're good or bad. But I've really enjoyed my time with Cam," said co-captain Matthew Slater, the longest-tenured player on the Patriots (since 2008).
"He's a very thoughtful person. He cares a great deal about football, and I think he's tried to really invest relationally in our locker room and in our young players."
A reflection of that came when Newton was voted a captain last week, an unprecedented appointment for a player who didn't even spend the offseason program with the team. The last time something close to it happened was in 2010, when veteran tight end Alge Crumpler was added as a captain during the season, and in 2003, when free-agent safety Rodney Harrison was elected captain after spending the entire offseason with the team.
Newton averaged more than 3,500 passing yards and 30 total TDs in his first eight seasons before playing just two games because of injury in 2019. But knowing he wasn't "born" a Patriot, he has spent every possible hour at the facility learning what it takes to become one. Second-year receiver N'Keal Harry said that drive stood out to him when he showed up particularly early one day, and was surprised to see Newton was already there.
"He's come in and done everything we've asked him to do. He works hard, given us everything he's had," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
Newton's two-month marriage with the Patriots has been defined by energy, intelligence and creative possibilities on offense.
A breath of fresh air
Newton has referred to 2020 as an "opportunity of a lifetime" and he has approached it that way. His constant presence has been widely viewed as a spark, creating an upbeat vibe as the team transitions from Brady.
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"There is never a dull moment. You can see why the players gravitate so much toward him," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "His personality lends itself to that, whether it's in the meeting room, on the practice field, in the locker room."
That personality comes to life in his media interviews, where Newton wears flashy hats and eclectic wardrobes -- a notable contrast from Brady.
That won't win the Patriots any football games. Neither will special handshakes. But if there is a clear-cut, on-the-field example of how Newton has worked to create connections among teammates, it starts when he first arrives in the huddle.
Taking a cue from something he saw from Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, Newton has a unique, often playful hand gesture with each player. With Harry, for example, it is a "hairspray handshake" because of the receiver's plentiful locks.
"He just brings just that little bit of extra juice. He just tries to make sure we're loose out there, make sure all of us are having fun because we all know this is a business," Harry said.
When Newton sees receiver Damiere Byrd, they touch hands as if they're flying off into the sky.
"Just a bird signal," said Byrd, who played with Newton in Carolina. "He's been doing it for years now. Just a way to get the energy going and get the vibe going and really kind of just pull everybody together."
To Newton, that comes with his standing as one of the team's leaders.
"Ever since I first spoke to any personnel with the team, I wanted to make sure they understood my drive and understanding that I'm not taking this opportunity for granted," he said. "Whether it's showing up when I do show up, or leave as late as I leave, I know people know that my heart is in the right place."
He knows the Patriots' scheme
For all the times Newton has danced on the practice field while Migos plays during warm-ups, or his voice has boomed as he implores the team staffer playing music to bring his best set list, what should not be overlooked is how quickly coaches say he has adapted to the Patriots' complicated scheme.
Newton joked with receiver Julian Edelman in his early days as a Patriot that the offense was like calculus. So he has been a committed student.
"[Cam] can handle a lot of different multiples, which you need to be able to do at that position," McDaniels said. "He reads the coverage well, and he puts a lot of time and effort into it.
"This is a difficult position to play, and when you're making a change in terms of terminology and offensive system, it requires an inordinate amount of time and effort and energy to try to make sure you know all the things you want to know, and know all the things you need to know to be successful. ... There's nothing more I could have asked him to do in the four to five weeks we've been working together to try to grasp his responsibility in our offense."
Quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch, who is in his first year with the Patriots, said during training camp that the daily improvement Newton made learning the system was "sometimes what you could see some other guys that have been in the same system for a few years make on a monthly basis.
"The leaps that he's taking each day have been really impressive based on the fact that there's a huge foundational gap from not having been here [in] the spring or the season before," Fisch said.
Still, Newton doesn't feel like he's where he wants to be. And until there's adversity on the field, which will surely come at some point, no one truly knows how this will unfold.
"Making things kind of slow down for me; that consistency is needed there," Newton said. "Once I kind of feel ... I'm grasping something, then I go back into the bag of tricks to kind of see which one that I haven't kind of mastered yet, and it's all under the same umbrella of this offense."
Exciting possibilities on offense
Newton flashed a wide smile when asked last week what excites him most about what he can do in the Patriots' offense.
"You're going to have to tune in and see," he said, laughing. "That's what excites me the most, because everybody's kind of having the same questions."
Five days later, McDaniels' smile grew wide when asked if he needed to have a number in mind for how many times he would allow Newton to run, with preservation a concern.
"That's a great question. Really have never had that question needed to be answered [for a quarterback]. And so we'll be smart," he said.
Those two exchanges shine a light on how the Patriots' offense might look different under Newton, whose combination of size (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) and ability to move is rare. Newton's 58 rushing touchdowns are the most by a quarterback since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, and he ranks third all-time in rushing yards by a quarterback (4,806), trailing only Michael Vick (6,109) and Randall Cunningham (4,928).
McDaniels said the general approach is to tailor the offense to the players' strengths, adding that Newton has "done some things that I haven't coached." Because of that, McDaniels has leaned on Newton himself, as well as on Fisch's varied background with more mobile quarterbacks.
"It's always kind of interesting when you embark and try to learn and execute a new scheme," McDaniels said.
Another point McDaniels made is that he has had to prepare a Patriots offense in the past without Brady -- in 2008 when Brady was out with a torn ACL, and for the first four games of the 2016 season when Brady was serving a NFL suspension.
The Patriots went 11-5 in 2008, playing with Cassel, but didn't play the toughest schedule and missed the playoffs. One benefit for Cassel was having a top-shelf receiver in Randy Moss. At the start of 2016, when Garoppolo and Brissett stepped in, the Patriots went 3-1.
"I look back on those memories and those experiences, and I gained a lot of insight into when to pull back, when to push ahead, when to challenge them to do more, when to take something off their plate," McDaniels said. "And that's really what you have to do."
The big difference this time, however, is the Patriots aren't turning to a quarterback who has come up through their system.
Newton, with his trademark flair, will emphatically end the homegrown QB streak.