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tara sullivan

Bill Belichick can’t dodge the quarterback question forever

Cam Newton was pulled from Monday night's game by Bill Belichick after another disappointing performance.
Cam Newton was pulled from Monday night's game by Bill Belichick after another disappointing performance.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Bill Belichick swerved into one of his most reliable postgame interview side roads late Monday night to avoid answering the most obvious and most annoying (for him anyway) question in the wake of the Patriots’ 38-9 blowout loss to the Bills. With starting quarterback Cam Newton having once again been benched in favor of backup Jarrett Stidham, inquiring minds wanted to know: Whom does Belichick plan on starting in the season’s last game?

“The game was over about 10, 15 minutes ago,” Belichick groused. “We worked on this game. We played the game. Haven’t made any plans for next week, obviously, being [that this one is] 15 minutes old.”

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The man does love to live in the moment. But as the great Crash Davis warned Nuke LaLoosh, the moment is over. And with the Patriots season soon to be officially over, too, the glaring, gaping question mark at quarterback looms over every offseason move.

Forget about next week. Whom do the Patriots plan on starting next year?

Monday night’s debacle certainly didn’t provide any clarity, with neither Newton nor Stidham, who entered on the second possession of the second half, able to muster anything resembling a functioning, sustained offense. And there’s little either could accomplish Sunday against the hapless Jets to stake a claim as next season’s starter.

But this is reality: The franchise is heading into the biggest rebuild of the Belichick era, and there still is no viable answer to replace the departed Tom Brady.

Who will play quarterback for Bill Belichick and the Patriots in 2021?
Who will play quarterback for Bill Belichick and the Patriots in 2021?Stew Milne/Associated Press

Even if Belichick opts to give Stidham the start rather than throwing him into a lost cause, the verdict is already in on the 2019 fourth-round pick. If Belichick believed he was the future, he would have used him more in the present, especially once the Patriots were eliminated from playoff contention.

Instead, the coach did everything he could to stand by Newton, sticking with him as a starter no matter how much he struggled with turnovers or accuracy, saying more in his defense than he ever did even for the all-world Brady.

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Just listen to Belichick from Monday night, when he tried to explain what made that third-quarter drive the right time to go to Stidham. He said the switch was done simply “to get Jarrett a chance to play.” He then insisted, “Cam did a good job for us. I mean, that wasn’t the problem. We were just not very competitive in the beginning.”

In the beginning, the middle, or the end. And Newton is part of the problem. As much as he can channel his vintage best self, as he did on a wonderful second-quarter touchdown run, or as much as he can wonder how much better his paltry stats would look if teammates such as Damiere Byrd didn’t drop wide-open first-quarter darts, his inability to scare anyone with his arm has dragged the Patriots down.

And for the first time since he arrived in New England, it finally seems to be dragging Newton down. One more disappointing game had his emotions spilling over Monday night.

“It’s extremely frustrating, knowing what you’re capable of, having belief in yourself, it’s just not showing when it counts the most,” he said.

He went on to confirm details of an ESPN graphic that showed a daily schedule that starts with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and ends with an 11:30 p.m. bedtime, saying he’s been following that regimen for 90 percent of the time he’s been here.

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Cam Newton has struggled for much of 2020.
Cam Newton has struggled for much of 2020.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

“So you can kind of understand the frustration I do have when I don’t have the outcome,” he said, “because I’m sacrificing so much. [You’re] talking to a person who ain’t seen his kids in three months.

“Obviously the contract is what it is. Submitting myself to this team is something I’ve been doing since day one. Being accessible.

“Yeah, it’s frustrating. It makes you mad. It makes you angry knowing that to be a trusted teammate you first have to submit to authority and submit to what the coaches are asking you to do. I feel like I have done that.

“I’m not in the place of blame. I’m more or less venting right now because, yeah, I’ve sacrificed so much this year. I mean, it hurts when you have the outing that you have tonight, just to go home, then start it over for a whole ‘nother week.”

Belichick could easily go the whole week without revealing who will start against the Jets, letting his least-favorite opponents worry about whom they have to game plan for. The bigger question is beyond that anyway.

Where do the Patriots go for 2021? Obviously, they have to draft a quarterback, but that doesn’t solve the immediate problem. Yes, they could find another veteran stopgap option (Ryan Fitzpatrick anyone?), but that means teaching yet another old dog a new set of tricks, one that in this case includes a complicated Patriots playbook.

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Or they could re-sign Newton in the hope that another year in said system would help him play better, that any lingering physical issues he may be battling would resolve and help him play better, that a full offseason program with his teammates would help him play better, that acquiring better skill players around him would help him play better.

That’s a lot of hope. And that’s not even including the one that if they want Newton back, that he wants them back, too. It was only last week that Newton described himself as still being on an ongoing job interview, and he is well aware the entire league has access to his résumé.

“There’s some plays that need to have been made on my part that I feel like I could have done a better job at doing,” he said. “You just have to review the film and get back to it.

“As a signal-caller, as a person who is a dynamic player on this team, I need to impact the game more, and it just didn’t happen tonight.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.