“There’s an aura that you get when you play as a member of the New England Patriots, and that aura can sometimes be like, grrrr, you know what I’m saying?” he remarked on Sunday, after the Patriots improved to 2-1.
The mix of cool suavity with deep-furnaced ambition has always made Newton a little misapprehended in a league suspicious of playfulness. If other teams are startled by how easily he has commandeered the stage early in this NFL season, it’s their own fault for not looking more deeply. The shock-armed Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes lead the pack in high-flair quarterbacking, yet no one bears watching more than Newton, who though still early in the adaptation phase has given the Patriots the explosive burst of a confetti cannon.
How do you lose a six-time Super Bowl winner in Tom Brady, and eight other players to opt-outs because of the novel coronavirus, and still remain a menace? You bring in a guy with an MVP arm and dragonfly elusiveness and an angry prideful heart, who was so passed over by other teams that he grabbed at a league-minimum contract with the Patriots like it was a throw ring from a rescue boat. “You’re getting a dog, and you’re getting one of those ticked-off dogs, too,” Newton said in July, shortly after he signed, in a discussion on Odell Beckham Jr.’s YouTube channel.
Andy Dalton and Colt McCoy got more money. So did AJ McCarron, Jeff Driskel, Chase Daniel, Marcus Mariota and Case Keenum. Newton can tell you exactly how many days he sat there “unemployed” before anyone offered him a deal. Eighty-six, to be precise. Granted, he hadn’t looked great on tape in recent seasons, and teams wondered whether his shoulder, twice surgically repaired, could hold up. “You’ve got to know,” as Ron Rivera put it. Still, Newton had led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl after the 2015 season, been MVP of the league. It was pure stupidity and insult to let him sit there for two months, because of what? His frivolous wardrobe?
“Every team at one point had to say: ‘Okay, fellas, Cam Newton. What do we think? Uhhhhh, pass.’ You feel me?” Newton said on YouTube. “And that’s the disrespect that I feel. … I’m going at necks all year.”
Here’s what it looks like when Newton goes at necks. You could feel his fury as he rushed for two touchdowns in Week 1 against Miami and then threw for nearly 400 yards in a near-thing comeback against Seattle. Next, despite losing center David Andrews to injury and running back James White to family tragedy, and not playing especially well, he directed a womping of Las Vegas in which he demonstrated an acute understanding of the new offense. Time and again he made the right shifts, so that Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel ran free for 250 yards. The inescapable conclusion: Newton is a missing piece that makes the Patriots a very, very heavy opponent, a team of monstrous substance.
What’s most interesting, though, is the extent to which Newton has provided an emotional updraft to the Patriots. In this strange, pandemic-inhibited season of strict protocols and empty stadiums with piped-in noise, a team might lapse into flatness. Not with Newton around, producing memes with his loose, antic body language and handing out amusing nicknames such as “Highway 11” for his No. 11 wide receiver, Julian Edelman.
“Cam’s been awesome at getting the energy up, especially without having fans, you know,” Edelman said Sunday. “It’s a different — it’s just so different out there without the crowd and the noise. But I’ll tell you right now, number one, he brings that energy, he brings that confidence, that swag, and it trickles off to everyone in the huddle.”
If it were just an attempt at ingratiating himself, or showmanship, it wouldn’t work with this team of drab workhorses, Newton acknowledged. “Me being the new guy around here, the first thing is, is it genuine?” Newton told Boston radio station WEEI on Monday. “I can see people trying to suss that out. As I get comfortable and they get comfortable, they realize it’s just me. I don’t find any amusement by being anything other than Cam Newton. … I don’t have time to act. My cup run overreth with trying to dissect the offense. Having the burden of doing something that I’m not, that’s just not realistic.”
Newton has worked so doggedly to absorb the offense that he has even earned indulgence from Coach Bill Belichick. Or “Dollar Bill,” as Newton cheekily calls him. It’s with a jolt that you hear Belichick sound almost effusive about Newton, in a way he never did about the mechanistic Brady, and talk about “chemistry.”
“Ultimately each team forms its own team chemistry, based on the individuals and the circumstances that the team travels through over the course of each individual season,” Belichick said last week. “Collectively there is some combination of a mosaic.”
A mosaic? Have Newton’s watercolor suits made Belichick, who can appear so untroubled by lightness, unbend into an artist? This is the coach who has been known to tell his teams: “There is no light at the end of the tunnel. … If you see light, it’s a train.”
In seriousness, to suggest that Newton’s compatibility with the Patriots should be surprising is to grossly mischaracterize him and them. Newton has slid so easily into the fabric of the team for the simple reason that, like his teammates and coach, he is a serious, driven competitor who is habitually “happily miserable,” to borrow Edelman’s apt phrase. Last week, Matthew Slater, one of the longtime spiritual leaders of the Patriots, watched Newton carefully as they traveled to Seattle. “I’m sitting on the plane, and this guy’s studying his playbook the entire six-hour flight out there,” Slater said.
The blasé voluptuary in his livery act was always just a personal amusement, a playful outward expression. If others haven’t understood that, they’re beginning to.