In the two weeks between his return from the reserve/COVID-19 list and his late-game benching, Cam Newton was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL.
His numbers across those two games, home losses to the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers: 65 percent completion rate, 255 passing yards, zero touchdowns, five interceptions, 43.2 passer rating.
No quarterback threw more interceptions during that span. Just three other starters failed to throw a single touchdown pass. Only one — Sam Darnold — posted a lower passer rating.
After being sent to the bench late in the New England Patriots’ Week 7 disaster against San Francisco, Newton acknowledged he’d lose his starting job for good if his struggles continued.
Newton’s lost fumble against the Buffalo Bills cost the Patriots dearly in Week 8, but he showed improvement as a passer in that game, going 15-for-25 for 174 yards with no interceptions. He followed that up with two of his most efficient games of the season, completing 77 percent of his passes in wins over the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens.
What’s changed? For one, Newton has been able to practice — a simple benefit he was unable to enjoy after testing positive for the coronavirus. That positive test kept Newton away from the practice field and the Patriots’ team facility for nearly two full weeks, setting him back in his effort to master New England’s complex and ever-evolving offense.
“Ever since coming back from corona, to be honest with you, I felt stagnant in my thought process,” Newton said Thursday when asked about his stretch of poor play. “The play’s pre-snap production wasn’t happening fast enough for me in games. Did it happen in practice? Yeah. But still not fast enough. And even still now, I can get better.
“So each day, each week is an opportunity for me to really hone in on this offense and just do my job. That’s what it really boils down to.”
Newton said this wasn’t the result of so-called “COVID fog,” but rather him struggling to keep up with the new plays, adjustments and other developments offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels introduced during his absence. Newton was able to participate in virtual meetings while sidelined, but his lack of practice reps hurt his ability to dissect defenses and properly communicate at the line of scrimmage.
“No, it’s nothing (COVID-related),” Newton said. “It’s just the fact that I wasn’t able to do anything for that stint while was off, and it showed. Coming back pretty much dry and knowing that as this offense goes, it evolves. And the mastermind behind everything with Josh, his mind doesn’t necessarily stop.
“Whether it’s a new play, whether it’s something that we’re watching (from) back in 2002, 2011, ’12, he has a plethora of plays for certain defenses that we face that he goes to, and it all starts before the snap with identifying certain things. Identifying, communicating with the offensive line, with the receivers, with the running backs — it’s my job to do so.
“And coming back from (COVID), when I did come back, I just felt behind. And the production here of late is nothing to blame more or less than me just taking ownership and responsibility that I’ve just got to be better.”
In the three games since his benching, Newton has completed 71.4 percent of his passes, the fifth-best mark among quarterbacks with at least 30 pass attempts during that span. Leaning heavily on breakout star Jakobi Meyers, he’s posted a 96.6 passer rating and has not thrown an interception since the Niners game.
That’s not to say Newton suddenly has morphed into a prolific passer. He hasn’t. With the Patriots embracing their identity as a dominant rushing outfit, Newton ranks 20th in both pass attempts and passing yards over the last three weeks and has thrown just one touchdown pass — a 7-yarder to Rex Burkhead this past Sunday — since Week 3.
But the Patriots are winning, and their offense, trapped in purgatory for the better part of a month, has found its stride. Newton isn’t complaining.
“I’m a quarterback that likes to win, so I don’t care if (we’re) running, throwing, whatever,” said Newton, whose nine rushing touchdowns are tied for third-most in the NFL. “I want to win. I’m here to win. Anybody that’s in that huddle, they want to win, too. Everybody in that locker room, they want to win, too.”
The 4-5 Patriots will look to extend their two-game win streak when they visit the 2-7 Houston Texans on Sunday.