All signs point to Cam Newton starting at quarterback for the Patriots Monday night.
Despite getting eliminated from playoff contention last week, New England apparently will stick with Newton against the Buffalo Bills over second-year backup Jarrett Stidham.
Coach Bill Belichick had left the door slightly ajar for a potential Stidham start, when he said earlier in the week that the Patriots could use their remaining two games as an opportunity to evaluate some of the younger talent on the team. But, asked Wednesday about the status of the quarterback position, Belichick seemingly slammed that door shut.
“How about if I let you know if we’re going to make a change?” Belichick said. “We’re not answering that question every day.”
Throughout the season, Belichick has been adamant that Newton, despite his inconsistent performances, would remain New England’s quarterback. Both Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have said Newton gives the team the best chance to win.
Even with little at stake, the coaching staff hasn’t changed its tune.
Asked Saturday if he would like to see Stidham get more playing time in the final weeks of the season, McDaniels deferred to Belichick.
“Those choices are Bill’s,” McDaniels said. “Whatever he chooses, that’s what we’re going to do. I feel confident going in with the plan we have right now.”
McDaniels noted Stidham, drafted in the fourth round in 2019, has had plenty of opportunities to show what he’s capable of contributing.
In two NFL seasons, Stidham has appeared in seven games — none as the starter — in which he completed 20 of his 37 pass attempts (54.1 percent) for two touchdowns and four interceptions. He also put together an impressive rookie preseason, completing 61 of his 90 pass attempts (67.8 percent) for 731 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception.
Because those snaps have either come in relief or against a mix of second- and third-stringers, its value is up for debate. But McDaniels also pointed to practice reps as another chance for Stidham to grow and for the coaches to see what he can do.
“Practice, preseason games, regular-season games, whatever it is, OTAs, all of those things count for something,” McDaniels said. “I’ve seen plenty of Jarrett in practice. I see him every day, so I’ve seen him for two years. I’m confident that I understand where Jarrett is at in his development.”
McDaniels pushed back on the notion that the best decision for Stidham’s development is to throw him into a regular-season game.
“You know, it’s great to say, ‘We’ll put him in there and that’ll be the quickest way to improve him,’ ” McDaniels said. “But, to me, every opportunity is an opportunity to improve, an individual period, a group period, a 7-on-7 period, a post-practice period, a preseason game, a regular-season game, whatever it is, you have an opportunity to get better if you approach it the right way. That’s what we try to encourage our guys to do.”
As he has all season, McDaniels said Newton has “done a great job” of preparing this week.
Although the team does not have a playoff berth on the line, Newton still has motivation. According to his one-year, incentive-laden contract, the 31-year-old quarterback can earn a major bonus with increased playing time.
If Newton finishes the season playing at least 80 percent of New England’s offensive snaps this season, he’ll earn an additional $2 million. If he can boost that percentage to 90, then his bonus will bump to $2.25 million. Heading into Monday’s game, Newton has played 778 out of a possible 896 offensive snaps (86.8 percent).
Newton also has a per-game roster bonus in his contract, earning $43,750 for every game he’s on the active roster. He will not hit his other contract incentives relating to Pro Bowl nods, All-Pro teams, playoff berths, and playoff wins.
Even though undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor hasn’t seen the field much this season, running backs coach Ivan Fears had plenty to say about his potential.
“The kid’s got great hands,” Fears said Saturday. “He’s really, really quick and sudden. He can get in and out of breaks. I think he has a chance to be a combination-type player, a guy you can use in multiple roles.”
Taylor has appeared in four games this season, in Weeks 1, 2, 3, and 15. He’s rushed for 72 yards on 17 carries, and caught one pass for 4 yards. Fears acknowledged Taylor’s height, 5 feet 6 inches, can be perceived as a weakness, but noted it can actually be used to his advantage.
“As a runner, the guy’s got great vision,” Fears said. “He’s hard to see. He’s so small, they can’t find him. When he plants that foot, when he accelerates north, phew, man, he’s like a blur. You’re trying to — like, where is he? He’s not big and everybody sees him. He’s sort of in between the rafters there.”
Fears would not shed light on the future of New England’s backfield, which includes Damien Harris, James White, Sony Michel, and Rex Burkhead. Burkhead, who is out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, is in the final year of his contract.
As for his own future? Fears, who has been with the Patriots since 1999 and turned 66 years old in November, said he wants to keep coaching so long as he’s physically able. He also gave a big shoutout to assistant running backs coach Troy Brown for bringing energy to practice and sharing his experience as a player.
“As long as I can do that and enjoy it, I would love to be out there,” Fears said, with a smile. “No doubt about it. I’m probably just like some of these older players. You kind of got to throw me out. I’m not going to walk out peacefully until they say, ‘You’re done.’ ”
McDaniels confirmed he will assume the responsibilities of quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch, who left the team after one season to become the head coach at the University of Arizona . . . The Bills announced running back T.J. Yeldon will miss Monday night’s game because he has tested positive for the coronavirus. Yeldon, who has not played since Week 5, has been placed on the COVID-IR list and will not travel with the team to Foxborough.
Nicole Yang can be reached at email@example.com.