The 2020 NFL season feels like a fever dream. The league played games on every day of the week. The Browns won a playoff game. A team doctor accidentally punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung, and Justin Herbert won Rookie of the Year as a result. The Saints started Taysom Hill at quarterback, and the Broncos one-upped them by starting an actual wide receiver at QB in Kendall Hinton. Stop me when the wackiness overwhelms you.
Perhaps the weirdest thing of all was watching Tom Brady win a Super Bowl (very standard) for a team other than the New England Patriots (absolutely ludicrous). The Patriots’ dominance, long considered a product of the unimpeachable bond between an elite quarterback and head coach, took a massive hit when Brady left for Tampa Bay and left Bill Belichick with free agent quarterback Cam Newton at the helm. The Patriots went 7-9, enduring their first losing season in two decades.
So Belichick and the Patriots went scorched earth. They spent more guaranteed money in free agency than any team has before and drafted Alabama QB Mac Jones in the first round—the first time they’d selected a quarterback that early since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. They were so desperate, so aggressive, and so oriented toward retooling that they even brought Matt Patricia back on staff.
But despite the team’s uncharacteristically explosive offseason, Belichick has presented this process with characteristic dispassion. As Jones battled Newton for the starting job, Belichick made no mention of the team’s urgency to revamp the offense, reload the defense, and win some football games. He gave both Jones and Newton plenty of run in practice and in the preseason, always nodding to Newton as the current starter given his veteran status, but never committing to a Week 1 decision. As recently as Tuesday morning, Belichick said of Newton’s performance: “Certainly he started at a much higher point than what he did last year. So, definitely moving in the right direction.”
Then, on Tuesday afternoon, Belichick named Mac Jones the starting quarterback. Only he didn’t do it by announcing Mac as the starter; he did it by cutting Newton outright.
Each of those moves—naming Jones the starter and cutting Newton—deserves its own conversation. The first decision isn’t too surprising. Anytime a quarterback is selected in the first round, the veteran quarterback is put on notice: His job will always be up in the air, from the moment training camp begins to the end of the season. Just last year, the 3-3 Dolphins benched starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was playing just fine, for an opportunity to see their rookie passer, Tua Tagovailoa. That decision may have cost them a wild-card berth in 2021, but the temptation to onboard and evaluate a young passer is almost impossible to resist.
In New England, Newton’s hold on the starting job was even lighter than that of most veteran quarterbacks. Only $3.5 million of Newton’s one-year, $14 million deal was tied into salary and signing bonus—the remaining $10.5 million was made up of roster bonuses and performance incentives, which Newton will never see now that he’s off of the Patriots’ roster. In 2020, Newton started 15 games for New England on a previous one-year deal, but his exciting early-season play fizzled after abdomen and arm injuries, as well as the residual effects of a positive COVID-19 case in early October. His production dropped throughout the year, and with it, the Patriots’ record: They finished 7-8 with Newton at the helm.
When Newton returned to New England in the 2021 offseason, it seemed the Patriots were willing to take another look at his potential. But they hedged their bet by drafting Jones, opening up the infamous quarterback competition: not really an open battle between two potential starters, but rather an investigation into how long the incumbent can fend off the newbie.
And while Newton’s hold on the starting job was tenuous, Jones’s performance was encouraging. Rookies always take their lumps, but coming out of Alabama, Jones was billed as a shrewd decision-maker with quality accuracy—and that’s exactly what he was in the preseason for New England. The game didn’t look too big or too fast for Jones; QB3 Brian Hoyer lauded his mental capacity; Dont’a Hightower complimented his work ethic, mentioning that Jones was looking at the Patriots’ defensive playbook to deepen his understanding of the other side of the ball.
Jones looked ready, and the team seemed to have faith that he’d perform when called upon—with this decision, the coaching staff has echoed that refrain. By making him the starter for Week 1, Jones now has the next two weeks to prepare for his NFL debut, which will come against the Dolphins in Foxborough.
Perhaps the only surprising part of the Patriots’ faith in Mac Jones is Belichick’s willingness to start a rookie at the team’s most important spot. Belichick doesn’t exactly hate rookies; he just tempers his expectations for them early on. Over the past few years, he’s described rookies as “swimming in deep water” and having “no idea what they’re getting into.” And while the Patriots have been good at finding late-round starters or gem UDFAs, their early-round drafting has come under fire in recent years. They just traded away a former first-round pick in Sony Michel; another first-rounder, N’Keal Harry, has requested a trade given the slow start to his career in New England. Recent middle-rounders Joejuan Williams, Duke Dawson, Yodny Cajuste, Derek Rivers, and Antonio Garcia all failed to find their footing.
Now, none of this matters when you can draft Michael Onwenu in the sixth round and grab J.C. Jackson as an undrafted free agent—two of the best young starters at their respective positions. That’s the Belichick magic. But that sorcery has been largely left untested at the quarterback position. Rookie quarterbacks have barely seen action for the Patriots during the Belichick era, in large part due to the stability the Patriots enjoyed at the position for the past two decades (see: Brady, Tom). Jacoby Brissett got two starts in 2016, and … that’s it.
Most camp reports and preseason games position Jones as a strong rookie performer, a likable figure in the locker room, and a hard worker who has done the prep to quickly become an NFL starter. Once those boxes were checked, the rookie’s ascension over the vet was all but inevitable.
Starting Mac over Cam is one thing, and cutting Cam is another. Rookies often displace veterans, but they rarely run them out of town. Usually, a veteran’s steady mentorship is a feature that teams hope to retain; they provide a security blanket in the event of struggles or injury. Lest we forget, after Tua took the starting job from Fitz, Fitz got it right back a couple of months later.
The Patriots’ release of Newton stands out as a rather unprecedented decision, but the NFL is mired in rather unprecedented times. The NFL and NFLPA recently agreed on revised protocols to address the increasing threat of COVID-19 variants during the 2021 season, detailing the testing, masking, and quarantining procedures for both vaccinated and unvaccinated players. Unvaccinated players are subject to mandatory quarantine periods in the event of close contact with a positive case, leaving them at risk of missing practices and games during the season that vaccinated players wouldn’t. Newton recently had such an absence himself, as a “misunderstanding” of the COVID-19 protocols led to his missing joint practices against the New York Giants last week. Since vaccinated players are not subject to daily testing or travel restrictions, Newton’s absence indicated that he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19.
If Newton had remained unvaccinated and with the team, he would have left the Patriots’ locker room more susceptible to positive tests, close contacts, and missed games. Last year, the Patriots had more opt-outs than any other team, saw multiple starters miss games with positive tests, essentially lost their bye week, and suffered their first losing season since 2000. After such a tumultuous season, the Patriots know how disruptive COVID-19 outbreaks can be.
Without information from the NFL about who is and isn’t vaccinated, it’s difficult to say to what degree vaccination status is affecting fringe roster battles and subsequent cuts. This was a concern for Buffalo wideout Cole Beasley, who said during a late-July presser that his comments against the coronavirus vaccine were “all about the young players who don’t have a voice, and are reaching out to me every day because they’re being told if they don’t get vaccinated, they’ll be cut. Agents are being told by teams that if they have unvaccinated guys, they will not be given opportunities as of now to be seen in workouts.” What Beasley described would be an unsurprising development in the NFL, where razor-thin margins split the difference between rostered player and practice squad journeyman. Teams hunt competitive edges, no matter how slight, and with the league’s strict policies on unvaccinated players, fielding a roster with a higher percentage of vaccinated players gives teams more security and stability entering the season.
Newton’s release may have nothing to do with his vaccination status—there were plenty of football reasons for New England to make a change. By doing so, the Patriots ensure that the locker room is fully behind Jones as the leader of the offense, as he no longer has to contend with a beloved teammate like Newton. The offense also has clarity and direction for both the dawn and the duration of the season. Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels no longer have to attend to the tricky balance and timing of swapping out Newton for Jones midseason.
Losing Newton still invites some risk. Hoyer is now the Patriots’ backup quarterback, and in the event of a Jones injury, either he or Jarrett Stidham would get the start. For a team that wants to bounce back into contending AFC status, that’s worrisome. But that risk paled in comparison to the benefits of starting Jones and beginning a new era of Patriots football sooner rather than later.
Teams such as Philadelphia, Washington, Denver, and Houston could all justify bringing in Newton as a quality backup and potential starter—Dallas has reportedly begun exploring Newton as a backup to Dak Prescott, who has struggled with a shoulder injury during camp. But any team that does so could invite COVID uncertainty into their quarterback room—and it’s likely that many teams would rather sidestep that matter. Newton is certainly still talented enough to play and win in the NFL, but that isn’t the whole story in the 2021 season.
The Patriots are kicking off the future and embracing the post-Brady era with open arms by starting Jones for Week 1 and not looking back. It’s quite the plunge, taken without the life vest of last year’s veteran starter still safely wrapped around Jones’s chest. It follows along a line of bold moves for New England. With Jones in place as the starter, the makeover of New England is complete, and should that makeover end up successful, Newton’s role as a quick bridge between quarterback eras in New England may be quickly forgotten.