FOXBORO, Mass. — Entering this past weekend, Cam Newton’s grip on the New England Patriots’ starting job appeared as strong as it had been all summer.
Newton looked great in last Thursday’s preseason win over the Philadelphia Eagles, completing 8 of 9 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown while monopolizing reps with the first-team offense. This came after an efficient showing in the second Pats-Eagles second joint practice that featured just two incompletions — including one drop — on 15 Newton pass attempts.
Rookie challenger Mac Jones also excelled against Philly (13 of 19, 146 yards with three drops and a spike) but played all 42 of his snaps behind the Patriots’ backup offensive line — a clear indication of where he stood in the team’s quarterback hierarchy.
Monday’s big development changes everything.
Newton very well still could open the season as New England’s starting QB. But complications stemming from his apparent refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19 have swung the door wide open for Jones.
Newton missed Monday’s practice and will be unavailable for the next two, as well — including the first of two joint practices with the New York Giants — as a result of what the Patriots called a “misunderstanding” of the NFL’s COVID testing protocols.
According to a team statement, the veteran QB traveled out of state for a “club-approved medical appointment” on Saturday and did not submit his required daily test at Gillette Stadium. Newton did test — and test negative — while he was away, per the team, but violated league protocols by not doing so at the Patriots’ team facility.
Vaccinated players only are required to test for COVID every 14 days are not subject to travel restrictions. But ones who are not fully vaccinated must test daily — even on days when their team is off. Failure to do so in the proper manner triggers a “five-day entry cadence process” during which that player is banned from playing, practicing or visiting the team facility.
That’s where Newton — who missed a game after testing positive for COVID last October — is right now, sidelined for three practices during arguably the most important stretch of his Patriots tenure. His team-announced reentry timetable should allow him to return in time for Thursday’s joint practice with the Giants, which precedes Sunday’s preseason finale at MetLife Stadium.
But until then, it’s Jones’ stage and his alone. The first-round draft pick took a total of 48 reps in competitive team drills Monday, attempting 36 passes. Third-stringer Brian Hoyer, who is not a legitimate contender for the Week 1 starting job, took 17 reps and attempted 10 passes.
Monday wasn’t the most impressive audition for Jones — he completed just 55 percent of his passes in 11-on-11s and struggled against the Patriots’ starting defense before a strong finish — but he’s shown obvious potential and improvement this summer and will have two more days of uninterrupted first-team opportunities before Newton returns. Then, we’ll have to see how the Patriots choose to use Newton in Sunday’s game after his abbreviated week of practice.
Even if Jones can’t leapfrog Newton on the depth chart this week, this situation illustrates the danger of having an unvaccinated player in a key role — especially in one as important as quarterback.
As safety Devin McCourty noted after practice Monday, vaccination is a personal choice, and the NFL does not mandate it for its players. But this entire ordeal would have been avoided had Newton received his shot. Imagine if something like this happens again on, say, the day before a regular-season game, forcing the Patriots to play without their starting quarterback.
Players like Newton and Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins, whose unvaccinated status led to a prolonged absence earlier in training camp, are putting their teams in a difficult spot. And for Newton, that choice could cost him his job.