Why Cam Newton’s career path to Patriots bears a striking resemblance to a star quarterback from decade’s past

Cam Newton was at the height of his “Superman” powers five years ago, sparking a debate whether he was the best quarterback in the NFL. Once Super Bowl 50 rolled around, it was easy to state Newton’s case as the game’s best signal-caller. 

Newton was at the top of his game when he captured NFL MVP honors in 2015, leading the Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 record and an appearance in Super Bowl 50. In those first five years, Newton completed 59.5% of his passes for 118 touchdowns to just 64 interceptions with an 88.4 passer rating and 7.55 yards per attempt. He also rushed for 3,207 yards and 43 touchdowns, averaging 5.35 yards per carry. 

That’s a Hall of Fame pace no scrambling quarterback could match, but Newton’s career turned after the Super Bowl loss. Here’s why the best comparison for Newton’s situation is former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, another player who once was considered the best quarterback in the NFL before injuries took a toll on his career: 

Comparing Cunningham’s downswing to Newton’s

Like Cunningham, injuries took a toll on Newton. A Grade 1 concussion, two shoulder surgeries, and a knee strain led to the diminished numbers, with the Pedal LisFranc sprain being the final nail in the coffin with his career in Carolina. 

In the four seasons after Newton’s MVP campaign, Newton completed 59.57% of his passes for 10,769 yards, 65 touchdowns and 44 interceptions with an 82.6 passer rating and 6.9 yards per pass attempt. The rushing numbers went down to 1,599 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging 4.77 yards per carry. Cunningham was two years older (32) than Newton at the time of his release (30). A torn ACL in 1991 took away the mobility that made him “The Ultimate Weapon” and a broken left fibula in 1993 and an ankle injury in 1994 that led to the Eagles’ lack of trust in his ability to play the position at a high level. Eerily similar to Newton’s end with the Panthers. 

Cunningham was a shell of his former self in 1995 with the Eagles. A change of coach in Ray Rhodes resulted in a final chance for Cunningham to capture the past magic that made him one of the game’s most feared quarterbacks. Rhodes didn’t take long to move on from the former Eagles franchise quarterback, benching Cunningham in the second quarter of Week 2 of the 1995 season (after Cunningham started 3 for 8 for 29 yards with an interception) — the beginning of the end of an era in Philadelphia. Cunningham started two more weeks before finally being benched for good, for Rodney Peete of all quarterbacks, a move that eventually won Rhodes NFL Coach of the Year honors as the Eagles finished 10-6 and won a playoff game in a surprising turnaround with a roster that fed off motivation, despite not being the most talented group. 

Cunningham’s resurgence 

Cunningham was out of football a year before the Minnesota Vikings needed a backup quarterback, when Dennis Green convinced the former Pro Bowler to come out of retirement in 1997. A new situation and a coaching staff he respected in Minnesota was exactly what Cunningham needed, punting in place for the injured Mitch Berger for two games before becoming the starting quarterback later that season and leading the Vikings to a thrilling NFC wild-card playoff upset over the New York Giants. Cunningham entered the 1998 season as the No. 2 quarterback, but that changed in Week 3 as Green gave him the starting job over Brad Johnson.

That season was Cunningham’s best in the NFL, as he threw for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions to lead the Vikings to a 15-1 record. Cunningham threw four touchdown passes in four separate games and led the NFL with a 106.0 passer rating, earning First Team All-Pro honors at the age of 35. He threw for 505 yards and five touchdowns in two playoff games, but the Vikings were shocked in overtime by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, thanks to a missed 38-yard field goal by Gary Anderson — who hadn’t missed a kick all year.

Will Newton have a similar resurgence in New England?

Newton is getting the opportunity to revitalize his career with the New England Patriots, a franchise that has displayed consistency at head coach and offensive coordinator (Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels). McDaniels has been with the Patriots in two separate stints as offensive coordinator and adjusted his system based on the personnel he has. He’ll get the most out of Newton and tailor his offense to Newton’s game (if he’s healthy), setting him up with the resources he needs to succeed over time. 

The 2020 season may be one for Newton to get his feet wet in the Patriots’ system, especially since he’ll be competing with Jarrett Stidham for the starting job. Once Newton gets a full season under his belt, the Patriots can commit to him for the long term and build the personnel around him to have a season like Cunningham did in 1998. The Patriots may even get more great years out of Newton since he’s just 31 this year, which should be the prime years for a quarterback. 

Newton has an excellent opportunity to have a Cunningham-type resurgence in New England, as injuries were the reason why their prior situations came to an end. Both players were too talented to suddenly forget how to play quarterback at a high level.  

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