We should be used to it. Not just Patriots fans. But anyone who follows the NFL. We should be used to Bill Belichick doing something so stunning that when it happens, it should no longer shock us. But it does. It did when he traded Randy Moss. And Logan Mankins. And Richard Seymour. And Deion Branch. It shocked us when he released Lawyer Milloy a week before the 2003 season opener. And that sneaky old vet got us again Tuesday morning with the release of 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton.
At a press conference earlier Tuesday morning Belichick gave a positive review of the work Newton had done in training camp. “Certainly he started at a much higher point than what he did last year. So, definitely moving in the right direction.” Belichick told reporters. The only direction Newton was moving was out the doors of One Patriot Place as the team made his release official just an hour and a half after that quote.
Cam was never the long-term answer for the Patriots’ offense. He may not have even lasted the entire season as the starter. Last year, in a season where the roster was depleted by injury and by COVID, Newton never quite did enough to grab the starting spot or instill much confidence that he’d be able to run the Patriots style offense at peak efficiency. Newton got pulled in games against the 49ers, Rams, and Bills last season. Something Belichick did to Brady only twice in his twenty years with the team for losing efforts (there were plenty of blowouts where Brady watched comfortably from the sideline for the final half of a fourth-quarter); the 2009 blowout in New Orleans and the Monday Night Massacre in Kansas City. Otherwise, Brady stood in there and took his licks with the rest of the guys. Between the lines here reads a story of how Belichick felt about Newton. While he raved about him publicly and behind closed doors, removing Newton from losing efforts never allowed the Patriots to become HIS team. Not the way that the Patriots were Brady’s team. Newton, for everything right he did, never seemed to be the Patriots “guy”.
Newton wasn’t going to be the Patriots’ QB beyond this season. Some NFL pundits even believed Mac Jones would supplant him as the starter as early as week four. But nobody expected him to be released before the season even began. There is speculation that Newton’s COVID situation played a part in his release. Others will try to tell you it was his personality. Belichick said it earlier this offseason: Cam was the starter until Jones or Sitdham or Hoyer outplayed him, the reason Newton was released was that Mac Jones was better. Plain and simple.
Watching any of this year’s preseason games gave even the casual watcher the feeling that the Patriots had two different offensive approaches depending on which quarterback was on the field. When Newton was leading the offense, it often felt clunky. The running game was smooth in operation, but the passing game was anything but efficient. There was the occasional chunk play or the nice ball thrown by Newton, but the overall operation was not crisp. It wasn’t Patriot like. His struggles to identify the defense and set his protection continued through to this preseason and while his understanding of the offensive concepts may have improved, it couldn’t save him from his frequent use of poor mechanics. If you’ve ever been in the car when someone is learning to drive a stick shift, this was akin to watching the Patriots offense with Newton at quarterback.
Enter Mac Jones. The man of a rotund belly and an affinity for smoking cigars after championships. No one expected him to elevate to the NFL game as quickly as he did. Maybe we should have. The highest graded college QB by PFF last season was Mac Jones. The year before that? Joe Burrow, the number one pick. Before that? Kyler Murray, the number one pick. The year before that? Baker Mayfield, the number one pick. Granted Trevor Lawrence is a generational prospect but even he couldn’t beat Mac Jones at premier high school passing camps. But Patriots fans should potentially be thanking the Jets for their pick of Zach Wilson, or the 49ers for their pick of Trey Lance. Or any of the thirteen teams (the Jets picked twice) that picked ahead of the Patriots. The Patriots got the guy they wanted and didn’t have to sacrifice anything to move up and get him. Now he takes over as the Patriots QB of the future.
There are going to be growing pains. Jones has struggled to identify post-snap coverage rotations throughout the preseason. Maybe McDaniels and Belichick get him prepared in time that this doesn’t show up in the regular season, but don’t be surprised to see him take the occasional coverage sack. But a coverage sack is better than forcing a ball somewhere it shouldn’t because you were fooled by the defense.
Mac set his protections throughout the preseason and often did so correctly. In the joint practices against the Eagles and Giants Jones was able to get reps against amoeba fronts and unbalanced formations, not just the vanilla odd or even fronts that teams put on their preseason tape. He also showed talent in identifying the defense pre-snap, something the cerebral quarterbacks do best. This allows him to make decisions quicker, especially if the pre-snap identification is correct. See the mismatch, look off the coverage, and go back to your pre-snap read. The offense operates at a higher level when the quarterback plays with tempo-something Jones did all preseason.
This offense isn’t going to ask Jones to sling it around fifty times a game. This isn’t the Chiefs, or the Cardinals, or the Rams, or even a dynamic offense with a mobile quarterback like the Ravens or Bills. This is going to be a schedule-based attack. The running game will be the motor of the entire operation while the passing game will go through the tightends. That is an offensive approach that is generally friendly to young quarterbacks. Jones is processing at a level a bit higher than your average rookie QB however. Multiple times this preseason Jones ran empty sets with effectiveness. At times, the offense looked like number 12 was back at the helm.
The offense will be about efficiency and staying ahead of the chains. Most importantly, it will be about taking care of the football-a department Newton struggled in last season. This Patriots team is built like the Patriots teams of the early 2000s. A strong defense paired with a smart and efficient offense all backed by the best special teams unit in the league. For a coach that preaches about complementary football, he now has the team to match it. The kid drafted to be the future is now the starter. Belichick believes he’s ready, so should we. I’m excited. The kid has looked better than could have ever been expected. The future is now, and, albeit a bit round, looks great.