There’s no sugar coating the disaster that’s unfolding for Cleveland right now. With news that Deshaun Watson is done for the season and requires shoulder surgery it fundamentally pulls the plug on any decent playoff run for the Browns this season if they stand pat. Sure, they could limp into the postseason with P.J. Walker and get bounced immediately — but the team has something special on defense that’s worth salvaging and seeing how far they can run.
Much will be made of the decision making up to this point. The team traded Joshua Dobbs to the Cardinals for peanuts before their season began, thinking their quarterback room was too stacked. Now he’s become the emergency star for the Vikings. Cleveland also didn’t make a move to trade for another QB ahead of the NFL Trade Deadline, despite Watson being on shaky ground injury wise. Analyzing these mistakes is important, but it doesn’t solve the reality the Browns face if they soldier on without trying to make this bad situation better.
At moments like this there’s a decision to make: Stay scared and play for next season, or try to find a hero — and when things are this bleak you don’t just need any hero, you need Superman.
This is a lot more than seeing a round hole and trying to jam a random block into it, whether it fits or not. Cam Newton really could be the answer the Browns need to not just salvage their season, but save it in a way previously thought impossible.
Don’t focus on the immediate past
The knee jerk reaction to mentioning Newton is to point out his struggles on both the Patriots, and his short-term return to the Panthers in 2021. This is an extremely different situation he’d be stepping into.
Truth be told, both those scenarios were terrible for him. Newton signed in New England not because it was the right fit, but because it was the only fit available. There was nothing compatible between a Josh McDaniels/Bill Belichick offense which runs off accurate, short-range, rhythm West Coast passing, and Newton’s cannon-armed Air Coryell sensibilities.
Throughout Newton’s career there’s been a direct correlation between success and passing. His skill at a quarterback is standing tall in the pocket, improvising, and finding deep completions. Cam’s magic number here is 7.5, and in seasons where his Intended Air Yards (IAY) exceed that mark the Panthers thrived. In his 2015 MVP season Newton had an 8.7 IAY, and it’s what took Carolina to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots wanted a completely different quarterback. Making him a short-yardage QB destroyed any chance of success, and Newton’s IAY in New England was 6.8. Essentially they got “Bad Cam,” not because of play, but design.
Newton’s second stint with the Panthers was nothing more than a shameless attempt to sell tickets when fan enthusiasm was at its lowest. Matt Rhule had no business coaching an NFL team, there was no consistent vision for the offense, and Newton walked in to a spot where his face was there to market the team, not win football games.
Here’s why that’s important in Cleveland
On paper the Browns run a West Coast offense, but it’s not really. Their variant of the offense Stefanski runs has the same rhythm passing roots, but critically alters the depth of target to be further downfield.
We saw this play out when Stefanski was offensive coordinator with the Vikings in 2019, where Kirk Cousins had an average IAY of 7.8, and we’re especially seeing it now in Cleveland in 2023. Browns quarterbacks are consistently throwing deeper than anyone in the NFL right now, with Watson sitting at 9.2 IAY, with P.J. Walker at 8.1 IAY and Dorian Thompson-Robinson at 8.5 IAY.
This team wants to gain yards in massive chunks through the air. Amari Cooper has a stunning Average Depth of Target (ADOT) of 15.2 yards, while Elijah Moore has an 8.8 ADOT. This season David Njoku’s role has morphed to being more of a short-yardage YAC tight end, but traditionally he’s been a deep threat as well.
If you look at the players Newton has thrived with in the past they all fit the personnel the Browns have right now. Amari Cooper is a vastly superior burner to Ted Ginn Jr, who Newton used to great effect. Elijah Moore is a scrappy, smaller receiver on the outside like a poor man’s D.J. Moore. Njoku has similar field-stretching ability at tight end to Greg Olsen.
The pieces are all here to make this really work, and to cap it off Newton has always been a part of run-first teams that punctuate gains on the ground with deep, gash-like passing.
Hell, the biggest blow to the Browns offense this year was the loss of Nick Chubb, taking away their interior run game and ability to punch in short-yardage situations. Now you’re talking about a scenario where Newton could easily be that guy, and thrive on 3rd-and-short situations — just as he did for the bulk of his NFL career.
Cam Newton would be a Hail Mary attempt, but it makes a lot of sense
Newton’s not just a quarterback who could play for the Browns, he’s the quarterback custom made to step in and allow this team to compete. At worst he’s better than P.J. Walker and brings a new dimension. With a little luck it’s a move that could take one of the league’s best defenses and propel the entire organization into a deep playoff run.
There’s enough time to integrate Newton into the offense against a fairly soft schedule to close out the year with a lot of winnable games. Get to the playoffs and who knows what could happen?
Cleveland could do the safe thing. They could ride out with Walker, maybe a little DTR and settle for Clark Kent — or they could go out and get Superman and see what happens. To me the answer is clear.