FOXBOROUGH — When Cam Newton signed with the New England Patriots this summer, he saw a golden opportunity. After two injury-plagued seasons and months at home waiting for a phone call, the chance to succeed Tom Brady as New England's starter seemed like a dream come true.
"Two or three months ago, I was questioning a lot of things," Newton said prior to New England's season opener. "Right now, as I'm looking up at Gillette and the iconic logo for the Patriots like, 'How can I lose?'"
Now? The more apt question is how have things gone so wrong?
Newton's dream turned into a nightmare on Sunday as the former league MVP endured a performance so disastrous that fans were calling for his benching before the first half was even over. Newton eventually was pulled for second-year pro Jarrett Stidham in the fourth quarter, and going forward his status as the starting quarterback will be among the most scrutinized storylines in Boston sports.
Likely hoping to avert any such controversy, Bill Belichick gave Newton a full-throated vote of confidence after the game, indicating that he will remain the Patriots' starter going forward.
"Yeah, absolutely," Belichick said. "Just wanted to give Stid a little experience here."
Whether or not that remains the case, Newton's performance on Sunday was the latest in a worrying downward trend that now stretches back more than a month. While last week's dismal showing against the Denver Broncos could be shrugged off because of Newton's positive COVID-19 test and the resulting two-week layoff, there was no such excuse in Sunday's 33-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, which was about as bad as you can get.
In the first half alone Newton went 4 for 8 with 30 yards and no touchdowns. He had two horrific interceptions and a passer rating of 19.8. He didn't target Julian Edelman once, and his only target to Damiere Byrd was a bounce pass off the turf three yards short. He nearly got N'Keal Harry killed on a throw over the middle, getting the second-year pro blown up and sent to the locker room with a head injury.
Things didn't get any better after the break, leading a stalled out drive resulting in a field goal to start the second half before throwing behind Julian Edelman for a tipped-ball interception on the subsequent possession. He got the hook after that, finishing the game 9 for 15 with 98 yards, three interceptions, a 39.7 passer rating and 19 yards rushing on five carries.
"I wasn't good enough, in no way shape or form did I put this team in position to compete, and that's inexcusable," Newton said after the game. "This is the National Football League where a lot is put on the quarterback and I have to deliver, and I haven't done that. And quite frankly, it's evident."
As he has throughout the season, Newton didn't point fingers and took full responsibility for his performance. His leadership and composure have been among his best qualities since joining the team, but at some point his play will need to speak louder than words.
For now Newton will remain the starter. While he won't say so, New England's pass catching situation remains dire and it's hard to imagine any quarterback thriving with the weapons available. Newton's competition hasn't exactly lit the world on fire either. Jarrett Stidham threw a bad interception in relief of Newton on Sunday, and he and Brian Hoyer each contributed to a horrific quarterbacking performance on Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Newton very well could still be the best option going forward, but with the Patriots now on a three-game losing streak for the first time since 2002 and 2-4 for the first time since 2000 — Belichick's first year in New England — the honeymoon is officially over. Newton needs to follow through and step up his game, or his dream of starting for the New England Patriots could end far sooner than anyone would have imagined.
Mac Cerullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.