The change at quarterback — poised, accurate rookie Mac Jones in, charismatic, scattershot veteran Cam Newton out of Foxborough altogether — is confirmation that something even more important hasn’t changed with the Patriots.
The best player plays.
That is a core tenet of Bill Belichick’s legendary tenure as Patriots coach, and while that might seem like a simple edict easily abided, there are many variables that can morph into obstacles when constructing a 53-man roster.
A player’s contract situation, stature among his colleagues, draft position, experience level, and more can affect and sometimes cloud a coach’s decision-making. For some, it can be hard to disregard conventional wisdom. It’s harder still to be bold.
Trusting his own evaluations has never been an issue for Belichick. We have mounds of confirming evidence from his time with the Patriots, from his momentous decision to stick with Tom Brady when $103 million cornerstone Drew Bledsoe returned from his brutal injury in 2001, to cutting popular Lawyer Milloy on the eve of the 2003 season, to giving undrafted free agents such as Malcolm Butler the chance to seize a role, and who knows, perhaps even a place in NFL lore.
Belichick operated like this before he came to New England. In Cleveland, they still talk about his decision as Browns coach to bench quarterback and beloved native son Bernie Kosar in November 1993.
Kosar had lost the job in camp to a far superior arm talent in Vinny Testaverde, but he got another shot when Testaverde got hurt … that is, until Belichick yanked him for someone named Todd Philcox, who had thrown 12 passes in three seasons.
Belichick saw something that Browns fans could not or would not, and he acted on it. “Basically, it came down to his production and a diminishing of his physical skills,” he said at the time, explaining the decision to sit Kosar. He could have added: Sentimentality and past accolades don’t win football games.
Philcox, a placeholder, wasn’t the answer, but Belichick knew that Testaverde was. The following season, he led the Browns to the playoffs — and a victory over Bill Parcells and New England — en route to a 21-year career that included a reunion with Belichick on the 2006 Patriots.
Even Kosar, who played three more seasons as a backup in Dallas and Miami and never won another game as a starter, acknowledged years later that Belichick made the right call.
“To be in the league but to not be able to perform at the level I wanted to was tough,” he told NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran in 2012. “But Bill is a bottom-line guy, and how can you ever question that? I’m a big disciple of the way he does things.”
I’m curious to see whether Newton feels the same way. He seemed to handle getting cut with the class and perspective he frequently displayed during his year-plus in New England, posting on Instagram (in his preferred font that not even the Zodiac killer could decipher on first glance) that he’s appreciative of “all the love and support during this time,” adding, “but I must say... Please don’t feel sorry for me!!”
It’s reasonable to wonder whether Newton, who doesn’t have the best pocket awareness, was blindsided once more. Most of us certainly were — not necessarily by him losing out to Jones, who outplayed him in camp, but by his outright release. When colleague Jim McBride broke the news Tuesday morning, it was a “holy cow” moment, except that the second word most people used there probably was not bovine-related.
Even if you have more than two decades of familiarity with Belichick’s you’ve-got-to-win-your-job-constantly approach, it never fails to be stunning when a player of great stature is sent on his way. Newton may be a spent casing of the quarterback he once was, but there was still hope that some of his skills would regenerate after the impossibly trying 2020 season.
He did look a little bit better — just not better than Jones, other than during the occasional practice or possession. The rookie undeniably made quicker decisions, showed better awareness, and demonstrated a deeper command of the offense than the 11-year veteran and former Most Valuable Player who had the head start of being in the system the previous year.
Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels threw every trick they could at Jones — including making him play primarily with backups — and if he didn’t immediately execute, he did the next time he faced a similar situation.
There will never be another Tom Brady, there will never be another Tom Brady, there will never be another Tom Brady … but is it OK to say there are flickers of the scrawny young Brady in Jones’s game, particularly his knack for accuracy and playing with tempo? It should be OK, because it’s the truth.
It’s doubtful that we ever get the answer to this before he writes his memoirs, but wouldn’t you love to know when Belichick knew he was going with Jones? I suspect he was strongly leaning that way before Newton’s COVID-protocol “misunderstanding” led him to miss three practices.
Jones performed spectacularly in the Wednesday joint practice with the Giants, and made a couple of decisions/throws in the final preseason game that made him look like he was the veteran with deep knowledge of the playbook.
Newton came to camp as the holdover, the starter, the veteran with media-guide pages full of accolades and achievements. He departed Tuesday, an ex-Patriot.
The most accomplished player did not win the Patriots quarterback job. The better player did.
That’s how it should be. In Belichick’s extraordinary reign, that’s how it always has been.
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.