FOXBORO, Mass. — You know that old saying, “Dependability is more important than ability”? It’s one of Bill Belichick’s favorites, a mantra around the New England Patriots’ facility.
Well, right now, Mac Jones has Cam Newton beat on both fronts.
Jones’ performance in Wednesday’s joint practice with the New York Giants was the best by either Patriots quarterback this summer — a steaming-hot, ruthlessly efficient tour de force that featured just six incompletions and even fewer mistakes across 40 competitive pass attempts.
Although Jones’ other two practices during Newton’s COVID-protocol-induced exile ranged from solid to so-so, it’s becoming increasingly clear he’s the Patriots’ No. 1 option at the game’s most important position.
The case for Jones as QB1:
As recently as last Friday, Newton appeared well on his way to locking down the starting job. He had a good week of joint practice in Philadelphia, then took every snap with the first-team offense in last Thursday’s preseason win over the Eagles, turning in one of his finest passing performances as a Patriot.
Jones looked great in that game, too, but all of his 42 snaps came behind New England’s backup offensive line. A QB2 role to start the season — with an eventual promotion weeks or months later — appeared to be his most likely path.
Then Newton traveled out of state for a “club-approved medical appointment” and flubbed his COVID-19 testing schedule. He tested — and tested negative — but didn’t do so at the Patriots’ team facility, violating NFL rules and triggering a mandatory five-day reentry process.
No practice, no on-site workouts, no in-person meetings. Strictly virtual. Endless first-team reps for the guy trying to take his job.
The Patriots called this a “misunderstanding.” It’s still unclear whether Newton or the team was at fault. But the QB could have avoided the entire ordeal by being vaccinated, as only players who haven’t received their shot(s) are subject to daily testing and these sort of five-day bans. (Wide receiver Cole Beasley currently is serving one in Buffalo after coming in close contact with someone who tested positive.)
Newton’s absence reportedly has caused “frustration” within the Patriots organization, and Belichick acknowledged it created a big opportunity for Jones. It also has spotlighted the danger of having a starting quarterback who is unvaccinated.
Vaccination is a personal choice, as several of Newton’s teammates have noted this week, but one that comes with consequences. The protocols agreed upon by the NFL and NFLPA make life much, much, much more difficult for unvaccinated players, and the risk of another situation like this one or Beasley’s occurring mid-season makes Newton a liability.
Our view of the Patriots’ quarterback competition at the outset of training camp was this: For Belichick to willingly start an untested rookie in Week 1, Jones would need to outperform Newton by a wide and undeniable margin this summer. Anywhere close, and he’d start the veteran. No need to rush the youngster onto the field, right?
And Newton has performed well in his second Patriots camp. He’s been more consistent and less prone to mistakes than he was a year ago, when he was playing in an unfamiliar offense surrounded by replacement-level weapons. Belichick has said since April that Newton is the team’s current starter, and the rep distribution in practice and preseason games has confirmed that.
But Belichick never has shut down the notion of a switch. After the draft, he said Newton would start until someone “play(s) better than he does.” Early in camp, moments before giving his latest “Cam is our starting quarterback” declaration, the coach said he was “sure it?ll be a hard decision” to choose which QB ultimately starts the opener.
From the start of camp through the second preseason game, the battle between Newton and Jones was tight. Jones “won” some days; Newton others. The rookie was clearly talented, clearly improving, clearly proficient in the Patriots’ preferred areas of expertise (accuracy, decision-making, anticipation, quick release, leadership, etc.). But any edge he was able to gain over his 32-year-old counterpart was slight. Newton still monopolized first-team reps and remained the favorite to open the season as QB1, even if the odds of him keeping that job through to January weren’t particularly high.
Until this week. Or, more accurately, until Wednesday.
After scuffling in his first Newton-less practice and stabilizing in his second, Jones soared in his third, carving up the Giants’ first-team defense and impressing teammates and coaches alike. He completed 12 of 14 passes in 7-on-7 drills and 22 of 26 in 11-on-11s. At one point, he completed 18 straight across multiple periods. He nearly had one errant pass intercepted early in practice, was flagged once for delay of game and committed a few other minor miscues, but otherwise was nearly flawless.
Jones’ two best passes of practice — a perfectly placed back-shoulder ball to running back James White and a long touchdown to a double-covered Jakobi Meyers — both were aggressive downfield throws that came during smoothly piloted two-minute drills.
“I think Mac is doing a good job,” wideout Kendrick Bourne said after practice. “Taking leadership, controlling everybody, having everybody in the right place and stuff like that — making the team be a real team. (He’s) doing a real great job of it.”
And Jones did this all on a 90-degree day with starters at left tackle (Isaiah Wynn) and wide receiver (Nelson Agholor) sidelined and one of his big-money tight ends (Hunter Henry) held out of full-team drills.
Might we be placing too much stock in a single practice? Perhaps. But this felt like a seismic showing for the first-round draft pick, who also happens to be Pro Football Focus’s second-highest-graded quarterback across his two preseason appearances. Hours after practice ended, DraftKings yanked Jones/Newton starting odds off its sportsbook.
Jones, with his skill set, is better suited to operate Josh McDaniels’ offense than Newton is. His ceiling moving forward is considerably higher than the 2015 NFL MVP’s. He’s already earned the respect of Patriots veterans, according to longtime co-captain Matthew Slater. Although the concerns of playing a rookie quarterback before he’s ready are valid, the Patriots have better roster talent and organizational fortitude than most teams who are drafting a QB in the top 15.
Simply put, Jones looks ready to be behind center against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 12. With Newton expected back at practice Thursday, we’ll soon find out if Belichick agrees.