Cam Newton's Read-Pass Option Skills Could Transform Patriots' Offense

Liam McKeone
Cam Newton on the PRO
Cam Newton on the PRO / Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
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The read-pass option has transformed what NFL offenses look like over the last half-decade. But, for the first time this century, the New England Patriots were not at the forefront of the latest offensive innovation. The reason for that is obvious: in order to effectively run an RPO, you need a quarterback who can actually tuck and run it if the coverage calls for it. Tom Brady can still pull off an adequate RPO, because the basic concept revolves around reading the defense and either handing it off or throwing the ball. But what makes an RPO most effective is when the defenses have to account for the triple threat of a handoff, QB run, or pass.

Enter Cam Newton, the best running quarterback in the league this side of Lamar Jackson. Health is of paramount importance for the new Patriots signal-caller, so New England's offense in 2020 won't be heavily reliant on his running ability. They won't put him at any more risk than they need to if they can generate yards in other ways. But it's easy to imagine Josh McDaniels getting real excited about the possibilities Newton's ground game opens up for his offense.

The biggest struggle last year for Patriots receivers was gaining separation. Julian Edelman has made a career out of managing to get just the tiniest degrees of space from a defensive back, but everyone else can't maximize that space the way he can. N'Keal Harry and Mohammed Sanu aren't going to be juking corners out of their shoes. The best way to engineer that kind of separation when receivers can't do it on their own is play-action, but the Patriots were so reliant on those plays that they didn't work as well as one would hope. The fact that the run game took a step back compared to 2018 didn't help matters.

RPO is an easy way to make defenders hesitate just long enough to open up a window for Newton to rifle a pass into. He's been so good as a runner that he could only actually choose to run once per game out of an RPO formation and defenses would still be forced to respect it. Without a legitimate deep threat on the roster right now, New England will once again be relying on the quick-passing game to generate yards. That didn't work so well with Brady in 2019, but Newton and the RPO will make it much more effective.

The point of a read-pass option is to make defenses think. Opponents didn't have to think much against the Patriots last year because they knew nobody on the roster was a threat to catch a pass over 15 yards and Brady gets out of the pocket once a season. Even if New England's run game is as average as it was last year, forcing defenses to account for the additional possibility of Newton tucking and running changes every play. Introducing an RPO, which makes it more likely Newton runs it, only forces more accountability.

McDaniels isn't going to burn everything from 2019 to the ground and start anew with Newton as the centerpiece of his offensive unit. But it will look different, and RPO could be the difference between fielding an average unit and fielding a dangerous one.

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