Update: The Patriots released Cam Newton on Tuesday morning and named Mac Jones the starting quarterback.
It sure is tantalizing to daydream about Mac Jones as the starter in the Patriots offense for Week 1 of the 2021 season and beyond.
Jones, the first quarterback ever drafted in the first round by Bill Belichick, seemingly aced his first training camp. He had the best stats of the three quarterbacks and didn’t throw an interception in a preseason game. Veteran leaders such as Matthew Slater and Dont’a Hightower raved about his poise and work ethic. Jones seemed to handle everything Belichick and Josh McDaniels threw at him.
“He’s put in a ton of work every day,” Belichick said Monday on WEEI. “His work ethic is very good.”
Cam Newton entered training camp as the starter, and started all three preseason games. But just think of how good Jones can be later in the season, and throughout his career, if he gets a jump-start now.
“I think it would be absolutely crazy not to start Mac Jones,” former Patriot Rodney Harrison said on Peacock’s “Sunday Night Football.” “He’s the perfect quarterback for this system. I just think this is the right guy for the job. And it’s a no-brainer to me.”
But Belichick isn’t paid to dream about everything that can go right. It’s his job to factor in everything that can go wrong.
And when it comes to the decision at quarterback, starting Jones in Week 1 carries significantly more risk than going with Newton.
Newton isn’t a popular choice among most Patriots fans, but he’s the far safer option to start the season. Newton comes with low risk and high reward. Jones is high risk and high reward.
The upside to starting Jones right away is tremendous: The Patriots’ franchise quarterback would get valuable experience and establish himself as the team leader for years to come. If the Patriots really hit the jackpot, perhaps Jones can lead his team to an 11-win season like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan both did as rookies in 2008.
But the downside is equally steep. What if Belichick miscalculated Jones’s development, and Jones, who started only 17 games in college, flops early in the season as he adjusts to the speed and sophistication of NFL defenses? Now you have shown the world that Jones is further behind than everyone thought; you potentially hurt Jones’s confidence (and the confidence his teammates have in him); and, in a worst-case scenario, Jones gets injured, as young players often do as they learn how to play in the NFL. As it is, Jones is already dealing with a left knee injury that has him wearing a brace for the first time.
Belichick also has to consider what happens with Newton if he sends him to the bench for Week 1. Newton has not been a backup quarterback since he was a sophomore at Florida in 2008. Since then, he has been a two-time college champion (junior college and BCS), a No. 1 overall pick, a league MVP, a Super Bowl quarterback, and an icon off the field. Newton is the clear alpha on the practice field, hyping up his teammates and raising the energy level for the entire two hours.
Who knows how Newton would handle the news that he is getting benched? That he lost his job after getting just 38 snaps in the three preseason games (compared with 107 for Jones)? That the Patriots are taking away his ability to earn $8.5 million in incentives based on playing time (minimum 60 percent), making the playoffs, Pro Bowl, All-Pro, and postseason success?
If Belichick is lucky, Newton handles that news with grace and humility and accepts his role. If Belichick is not so lucky, Newton pouts, loses focus, and potentially divides the locker room.
The Patriots need Newton to be checked in. Brian Hoyer, bless his heart, can’t be the team’s primary backup.
There’s also the issue of the early schedule. In their first four games, the Patriots play the Dolphins, Saints, and Buccaneers — three defenses that finished top 10 in points allowed and sacks, and top five in takeaways a year ago. Miami head coach Brian Flores and Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles are two of the best and most aggressive defensive coaches in the NFL. There’s no need to subject Jones to that kind of punishment this early in his career. Week 5 in Houston seems like a more forgiving starting point.
The other scenario, choosing Newton over Jones to start the season, carries far less risk. If Newton plays well early, then everyone wins. The Patriots are winning games, Newton is happy, the locker room is harmonious, and Jones can sit and learn and soak it all up. Jones probably wouldn’t be thrilled with sitting on the bench, but he has been patient before, sitting for three years at Alabama before getting his shot.
It’s not unreasonable for the Patriots to expect to win games with Newton this year. He wasn’t very good in 2020, but he still did go 7-8 as a starter with some of the worst talent in the NFL around him. It’s certainly possible that with a better supporting cast, including a much-improved defense, Newton will be more efficient in his second season and can lead the Patriots back to the playoffs.
And if Newton doesn’t play well early? Belichick can simply make the switch. Newton will have gotten his fair shot, and everyone knows there are no free rides.
The only risk is in Belichick holding onto Newton too long. Newton doesn’t deserve a long leash, and if he is clearly holding the team back and they start 1-3 or worse, Belichick will need to make the switch. But Jones can take over in Week 5 in Houston and would be no worse for sitting the first month of the season.
Jones dazzled this preseason, but there’s no need to rush him into the lineup. It’s a long season, he’s dealing with a knee injury, the opening schedule is difficult, it’s a big jump from college football to the NFL, and benching Newton brings a potential set of headaches.
The Patriots eventually will be Jones’s team. But the far safer play for Belichick is to let Newton sink or swim on his own first.