As holdover Cam Newton and rookie Mac Jones battle it out, pass by breathlessly reported pass, for the Patriots’ starting quarterback job — or should I say, as Newton’s personal decisions give Jones a golden chance to seize the job — I keep thinking back to a compelling artifact the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah shared on Twitter back in March 2020.
Before Jeremiah built a reputation as one of the most trustworthy draftniks, he was an NFL scout, including with the Ravens in the early 2000s. The Ravens, of course, were the Zombie Browns in those early years after owner Art Modell skipped town on Cleveland. Some of Bill Belichick’s tenets from his five seasons coaching the Browns were still used by the Ravens in those early years … as evidenced by a handout Jeremiah shared in which Belichick had detailed all of the attributes he looks for at each position.
The handout might as well be called “It Is What It Is: The Winning Football Manifesto,” even if it took until his second season in New England, and the revelation of Tom Brady, before all of Belichick’s coaching genius reached peak power.
This is what he wrote about the most important position in sports:
“QB: #1 is to make good decisions — then arm, size, physically tough, leadership, guys look up to and have confidence in, a real competitor. Accurate rather than guy with a cannon. Emphasis on our game will be on decision, timing, accuracy — guy needs to be confident, intelligence is important but not as much so as field awareness & judgment. Can’t be sloppy fundamentally unsound guy w/ ball handling, tech’s, etc. Footwork, drops, release, etc. — QB has to be able to throw the ball with accuracy.”
Some of those characteristics describe Newton. He’s big, tough, confident, a competitor, and someone blessed with undeniable A-list actor charisma. He’s admired by his teammates, especially the younger ones. It’s easy to root for him to succeed here.
But tell me, does this jump out at you, too? More of these desired qualities describe Jones … and further, many of Jones’s strengths happen to be Newton’s glaring weaknesses: decision-making, field awareness, strong fundamentals, timing, and something mentioned three times in Belichick’s want list — accuracy.
Brady checked every box on that list for 18 full seasons as the Patriots’ starter and 20 seasons overall, through 326 total games and 249 victories, including six Super Bowl wins. He is Belichick’s quarterback ideal come to life in the most astonishing way possible. No one will ever — ever — match his achievements, no matter how hard the NFL media machine will try to tout the next young quarterback who throws a bunch of touchdown passes and wins a Super Bowl as potentially The Next Brady.
There is no next Brady. Jones will have had a tremendous career if he is, oh, the next Phil Simms or Matt Hasselbeck. But it cannot go unnoticed at this moment in Patriots history that his subtle but important skills — making quick reads, playing with tempo, getting rid of the ball in a hurry — are reminiscent of what Brady did well immediately when he took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 of the 2001 season. The next time Bledsoe started a football game, he was wearing a Buffalo Bills helmet.
Twenty years after the Brady/Bledsoe situation, Jones has a chance this week to stake his own claim to the starting job in the absence of the incumbent, in part because of Newton’s lack of judgment, not on the field, but away from it. Newton had to enter COVID-19 protocol after a “misunderstanding” regarding off-site testing. He can return to practice Thursday, but his self-inflicted absence gave Jones the opportunity to take the majority of the snaps with the first-team offense.
When Belichick was asked Tuesday whether this was a great chance for Jones to show the coaches what he can do, he was blunt: “It is.”
He seemed to be in a great mood, somewhat of a surprise given the apparently unvaccinated Newton’s irresponsible violation. The NFL Network’s plugged-in Mike Giardi reported that Newton’s situation left some in the organization’s upper hierarchy frustrated, but Belichick didn’t carry himself like he was feeling that way.
Unless there’s a legitimate medical reason, it’s irresponsible for anyone to go unvaccinated at this point. Jones has not confirmed whether he is vaccinated, but he has not been spotted wearing a mask, and he answered a question from USA Today’s Henry McKenna on Aug. 5 this way: “I think a lot of our guys on our team are [vaccinated], and that’s a good thing. We’re going to keep moving forward. It’s made it a lot easier to go about the day.”
Given the potential fallout for teams that have a COVID-19 outbreak during the season — including the possibility of forfeiture — getting vaccinated should be added to the list of the kind of wise decision-making desired in a quarterback.
Jones has a chance to make the job his own this week. He’s had some rough spots in practice, especially Monday, but finished with several highs Tuesday, including a back-of-the-end-zone touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith, and engaging Matt Judon in some trash-talking. I bet he gets even better as the week goes on and the Patriots practice jointly with the Giants.
Jones doesn’t strike me as someone who will let an opportunity slip. I suspect his coach already knows this.
Belichick knew 30 years ago what he wanted in a quarterback. He’s not about to overlook it when it’s standing right in front of him now.