In singling out offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for “dialogue on the sidelines” he described as “unbelievable,” Newton gave his first indication of a partnership that is proving to be a perfect fit. With two more games of evidence since, all signs point to a match made in football heaven. Enthusiastic exchanges of praise this past week between coach and quarterback reveal their delight in finding each other at this point in their careers.
For McDaniels, this is proof his varied and dizzying game plans could flourish in the post-Tom Brady era, that his creativity could shine with a player such as Newton, even if the top offensive weapons around him hadn’t changed that much from Brady’s final years. For Newton, this is proof his varied and dizzying skill sets are far from past their sell-by date, that his designed runs, options, pitches, and misdirection plays could find balance once again with his cannon-like arm.
For the Patriots, this is proof that even though change is scary, it can be invigorating, too. As they take their 2-1 record into Kansas City Sunday, no one doubts that Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are the ones setting the bar for high-flying offense. But as Reid made sure to point out this past week, people are noticing what McDaniels and Newton are building together, too.
Well, Reid sure is, anyway.
“With Josh, we saw what he did with Tim Tebow [as the head coach in Denver] and now you’re seeing it with Cam,” he said. “He’s just doing it a little different because Cam has an unbelievable arm and has probably a little better feel for the pass game right now than what Tim did. He’s using every factor of Cam. I think Cam’s enjoying that.”
Reid would be correct. From a Week 1 game plan that relied heavily on Newton’s legs and utilized those run-pass options to perfection, to a Week 2 wide-open air attack that saw Newton keep pace with Russell Wilson all the way to a final, failed running play, to the Week 3 win over the Raiders that represented the most balanced offensive attack so far, Newton and McDaniels have shown impressive versatility. In a game so often won on matchups, they are exploiting theirs. With communication (like Newton referenced back in Week 1) and trust, the bond is growing.
“[Josh] is a great teacher first and a coach second,” Newton said Thursday. “For him to make sure everybody is firing on all cylinders, from different ID points, to the reason we’re calling plays, to in-game adjustments, to the reason we’re trying to attack defenses and having a whole dissertation for that, it’s something that is relatively neat and impressive.
“I appreciate his professionalism and coaching style. You don’t have the résumé that Josh McDaniels has just wearing the coattails of someone else. You have to uphold your end of the bargain, too, and now I know why that’s the case.”
For most of the NFL, McDaniels is known as the guy who failed in Denver, who was so off-putting in his attempt to be a Rocky Mountain Belichick that they all but laughed when he didn’t make it to the end of his second season before getting fired, who somehow tarnished his reputation even more by landing a job in Indianapolis only to change his mind the next day. And sure, there are questions about how former special teams coach Joe Judge, never a head coach at any level, landed the Giants job before McDaniels could even make it to New Jersey for a scheduled interview.
But none of that matters in New England, where McDaniels thrives in his autonomous role under the defensive wiz Belichick.
“In his play calling and design, he is sort of brilliant,” Tebow said in a recent interview on Mad Dog Radio. “He is using Cam in so many great ways. It’s not just, ‘Oh, Cam can run so we’re going to run the football.’ No, he’s setting him up for mismatches with alerts, equating numbers and looking at the defense.
“And Cam is so versatile, he can throw it for a possession-type catch, he can throw it vertically down the field, he can run for power, he’s fast enough to be able to get outside on sweeps. They’re just using him so well. They have a great match there. I think they’re going to be really tough for a lot of people to stop.”
There McDaniels was last Sunday, early in the fourth quarter, lead cut to 10, on the sideline looking to Cam and Co. to put the game against the Raiders away.
“Mickey D’s, Coach McDaniels, came to me, as well as Jules [Edelman] and kind of challenged us not to let our foot off the gas,” Newton recalled.
He gave Newton the keys, and the resulting touchdown drive showed off every feature this offensive model can have: a second-down 27-yard strike to N’Keal Harry. A dump off to Rex Burkhead that went for 11 yards. A second-and-8 play with Newton in the pocket, holding until the field opened, and then sprinting for 21 yards, his longest run of the day. Ultimately, a 2-yard handoff to Burkhead that sealed the game. Plenty of it was familiar, part of the same playbook Brady helped perfect.
“It’s different,” McDaniels said. “There’s certainly a huge chunk of what we’ve been able to try and do in the past that we continue to try and do. You take certain strengths of each player and in this particular case we’re talking about the quarterback. You take the strengths of the players that you have and you try to put them in the positions to be successful that they have the most confidence in.
“Whether it is some version of an adjustment in the running game, some ability to use his legs or his size and strength, we’ve tried to do some of all of that. At the same time, the most important thing for us and for Cam is to run the offense.”
He’s running the offense, but he’s changed it, too, and together with McDaniels, the Patriots are forging their new identity.