The Patriots say their quarterback job is wide open, and they have been splitting reps fairly evenly among Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, and Brian Hoyer through the first week of training camp.
But Roman Harper, who spent 11 years in the NFL as a safety for the Saints and Panthers, knows that what coaches say publicly often doesn’t match the reality of a situation.
“Splitting reps — look, that’s what they do when they don’t want to just announce the starter,” said Harper, who last played in the 2016 season. “We all know what it means when you sign a guy like Cam Newton.”
What it means is that it's only a matter of time before the Patriots become Newton's team. Most likely, in the next couple of weeks, before the season opener against Miami.
The Patriots don’t owe Newton anything, of course. They brought him to New England on a one-year contract with a minimum base salary ($1.05 million) and only $550,000 guaranteed. If he doesn’t fit, or play well, there is no attachment to him. And it’s certainly possible that Bill Belichick could decide that Newton isn’t quite ready to start the opener, given no offseason work and a truncated training camp.
But Newton isn’t any old veteran quarterback. He’s a Heisman Trophy winner, a former No. 1 overall pick, and a former league MVP. He took a team to the Super Bowl. He’s still only 31 years old, and a physical marvel at 6 feet 5 inches and 250 pounds. He’s fashionable, magnetic, and hangs in celebrity circles.
When the three Patriots quarterbacks take the field, Newton is the biggest, baddest man out there, and everyone knows it.
“He’s definitely a former MVP for a reason,” Julian Edelman said Friday on WEEI. “He’s extremely dynamic and he’s got a charming personality.
“It’s been fun to be around. He has a confidence about him — all quarterbacks have a confidence, but it’s just a little different with Cam. It’s a vibe that can feel you and get you in a mind-set. It’s been fun.”
Belichick has to keep up the pretense of a competition, but everyone knows the deal. The Patriots aren’t bringing Newton here to back up Stidham, a fourth-round pick with four career passes, or Hoyer, a career journeyman who’s changed teams nine times in 12 years.
And Newton, who spent three months as a free agent before finally agreeing with the Patriots on June 28, isn’t coming to New England if he thinks he’ll have to platoon or be a backup.
Newton is here to play.
“You can’t bring Cam Newton in and think your starting quarterback is going to feel comfortable, when you bring in a guy that’s probably bigger than your quarterback, probably has a better arm, probably more athletic, and is probably going to give more interviews and dress better,” said Harper, who played with Newton in 2014-15.
“It takes the right type of locker room and situation being able to accept a quarterback like Cam Newton. It’s about the right fit, and I think New England is that for him.”
Belichick has been coy about his plans since signing Newton. He even breathed life into a rumor this past week that he could use a platoon situation, alternating among Newton, Stidham, and even Hoyer based on the situation.
“I always say I’ll do what I think is best for the team, what gives us the best chance to win,” Belichick said Wednesday.
Sorry, but if you’re buying that, I’ve got some prime swampland in Florida to sell you.
In the same press conference, Belichick acknowledged that “obviously” there has to be a point before the Sept. 13 opener when he anoints a starter and gives him the most work in practice. Friday, he mentioned that the last 7-10 days of the preseason will be focused on preparing for the Dolphins.
“Yeah, of course at some point, we’ll have to not equalize the reps — I mean, that’s obvious — but we’re not there now,” he said.
And not only have platoon situations been proven to fail time and again in the NFL (the old cliché is “when you have two quarterbacks, you really have none”), but Belichick himself learned this lesson in 2001, after Drew Bledsoe returned from injury in the middle of the season. Belichick split practice reps between Tom Brady and Bledsoe the first week, and the Patriots lost to the Rams.
“I didn’t think that was Tom’s best game, but in retrospect, I looked at it and thought it would be hard for anybody to play well only getting half the reps,” Belichick said in December on an “NFL 100″ show. “So the following week against New Orleans, I said, ‘We’re just going with Tom and he’s going to get all the reps and he’s going to play.’ ”
Of course, why even have a platoon or alternate quarterbacks when a healthy Newton is your best option in every situation? Assuming Newton is recovered from foot and shoulder injuries the last two years, he has the biggest arm, the fastest legs, and the best skill set of the three.
“When he first got into the league, it was all about, ‘Well, just keep him in the pocket, don’t let him use his feet and you can beat him,’ ” said Harper, who faced Newton twice a year when he was with the Saints. “You can’t say the same things anymore.
“He’s got a big-time arm and he has worked really hard at it. He’s effective inside the red zone, where you can just run a QB power inside the 5-yard line. Or on third and 10, when most teams drop everybody back, and you can run a quarterback draw and get a first down.”
Newton hasn’t exactly run away with the competition through the first week of camp, but Stidham likewise hasn’t done anything to seize the job. He threw multiple interceptions in three straight practices, and reportedly is dealing with a leg injury that kept him out of Friday’s practice and will affect him moving forward. Hoyer is who he is.
Newton was the presumed favorite the moment he signed in New England. And since Stidham and Hoyer haven’t been markedly better than Newton during camp, he has to be the starter.
You play your most talented quarterback, not necessarily the guy who knows the playbook the best.
“I think Cam is humble, I think he’s healthy for the first time, and I think he’s hungry,” Harper said. “And I personally would never doubt somebody that’s been successful at every turn of their life.”
August 18, 2020
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.