How Mac Jones Got Here: Retracing QB’s Path To Patriots Starting Job

Jones beat out Cam Newton in a highly scrutinized QB battle


September 6, 2021

This Sunday, Mac Jones will become the first rookie quarterback to start a New England Patriots season opener since Drew Bledsoe in 1993.

It’s the culmination of a four-month journey for Jones, whose performance in training camp and the preseason convinced the Patriots to cut 2020 starter Cam Newton last week and hand the keys to the first-round draft pick.

Jones always was going to leapfrog Newton eventually. His talent, potential and intangibles were obvious. But to win the Week 1 starting job? That surprised many, even those who watched both QBs on a daily basis this summer.

As Jones prepares to lead the Patriots into this weekend’s matchup with the Miami Dolphins, we reviewed our coverage of New England’s quarterback competition from draft night through cutdown day, including insight from teammates and coaches, to answer a simple question: How did Jones get here?

Passages in italics appeared in previous stories.

April 29
Rumored as a potential San Francisco 49ers target at pick No. 3 after his phenomenal senior season at Alabama, Jones wound up falling to No. 15, where quarterback-needy New England snatched him up. He was the first QB drafted by the Patriots in the first round since Bledsoe.

Moments after the pick, the Heisman Trophy finalist said his primary goal was to help and support Newton and Jarrett Stidham.

“It’s (Newton’s) show,” he said. “I’m just there to support him and help out the team in whatever way I can.”

In his draft-night video conference, Belichick declared “Cam’s our quarterback” until someone else proves he can “play better than he does.”

“I just love what Josh McDaniels does. He does a great job. He’s very creative. And just to watch good football plays on tape is what you want to look at, and good quarterback play. So I always tried to find games from the Patriots in the past and looked at them through the draft process just because it’s a great football team, and to be a part of it now is awesome.”

— Mac Jones, April 30

May 27
“The biggest revelation that came out of Thursday’s open organized team activities spring practice was the order of quarterback repetitions.

“When the Patriots came together for team drills, rookie Mac Jones, not third-year pro Jarrett Stidham nor veteran Brian Hoyer, followed starter Cam Newton. …

“Jones didn’t look out of place with the second-team offense, so we’d suspect that he’s at the very least in the running to back up Newton this season. If he’s already No. 2, that could mean that by the summer there’s a possibility he’s competing for the starting job.”

“(Jones) has a swag to him that I didn’t know that he had at first. He’s out there confident, and that’s what you need in a quarterback, and in all our players. You’ve got to have confidence. He’s come in with that, and I think that’s going to take him a long way.”

— wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, May 27

“I think Mac, he has a pretty good understanding of the things that we do. … He puts in a lot of time. Certainly giving his very best effort to do everything we’ve asked him to do and do it the way we’ve asked him to do it, which is a great place to start. He’s earned a lot of respect for that.”

— head coach Bill Belichick, June 4

June 10
“All four signal-callers participated in the first six OTAs, but Newton — last year’s starter and the current QB1 — has been out this week as he recovers from a hand injury he suffered last Friday. Jones’ standing as the new guy was evident in Thursday’s open practice, as he saw noticeably fewer reps in 11-on-11 drills than both Stidham and Hoyer.”

“I’m the rookie, so I’m just learning from (the other QBs). They’ve all been very nice to me, treated me very well. I’m just trying to help them out the best I can, too. Whatever I can do.”

— Mac Jones, June 11

June 15
“We may have seen a shift in the New England Patriots’ quarterback competition on Day 2 of mandatory minicamp.

“Cam Newton led off every team period Tuesday, as he has in every open spring practice in which he’s participated. But Newton did not finish this latest session as New England’s leader in QB reps.

“That honor went to Mac Jones, the first-round draft pick who will look to challenge Newton for his starting job once roster battles begin in earnest in training camp.

“Jones completed 17 of 25 passes in competitive team drills, including 9 of 13 in 11-on-11s. Newton went 9-for-17 and 5-for-9 in 11s. Third-year pro Jarrett Stidham threw just eight passes, completing five (3-for-5 in 11s). Veteran backup Brian Hoyer threw zero. …

“Jones closed out the competitive portion of practice by throwing interceptions on two of his final three reps in 11-on-11s. … It’s clear (he) still is adjusting to the Patriots’ offense and the NFL game. … It would be foolish to place him above Newton on New England’s QB hierarchy after just a handful of non-padded practices.

But it is notable that Jones already is seeing more reps than his veteran counterparts this early in the process. Perhaps he has a stronger chance of beating out Newton this summer than we originally anticipated.

“Mac, he’s a young guy, but you can’t really just refer to him as a young guy. You can tell he’s been at a place where’s got some coaching. I think he’s going to be special here in the future.”

— offensive tackle Trent Brown, June 16

June 17
“The rookie’s performance and workload in organized team activities and minicamp set the stage for what should be a legitimate quarterback competition this summer. Newton led off every competitive drill throughout the spring, but Jones actually logged more minicamp reps than the incumbent starter, attempting 65 passes in 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s to Newton’s 58. (Both dwarfed the rep counts of Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.)

“It wasn’t all positive for Jones, who finished practice poorly on both Tuesday (interceptions on two of his final three passes) and Wednesday (3 for his last 10, INT on his final throw). As Jones said himself, he still has plenty of learning to do. Newton, who enjoyed his best performance of minicamp Wednesday, still will enter training camp as the favorite to keep his starting spot.

“But Jones’ odds of winning that job certainly increased this week.”

July 27
“On draft night, Bill Belichick was quick to declare Cam Newton his starting quarterback.

“The New England Patriots head coach made no such assertions on the eve of his team’s first training camp practice.

“Asked whether there will be an ‘open competition’ this summer between the incumbent Newton and first-round draft pick Mac Jones for the starting quarterback job, Belichick referred to the highly anticipated roster battle as a ‘clean slate.’ …

Belichick was asked whether that ‘clean slate’ comment included the quarterback position, as well.

“‘Including the coaches and all the players,’ the coach replied.”

“I’m going to be honest, man, I didn’t expect Mac to have the kind of swagger that he’s got.”

— tight end Jonnu Smith, July 28

July 29
“Mac Jones had a tendency to fade toward the end of OTA and minicamp practices, with a large portion of his spring interceptions coming in the latter stages of those sessions.

“That was an issue again for Jones on Thursday.

“The rookie quarterback looked much sharper than Cam Newton during a mid-practice 7-on-7 drill — he showed stronger anticipation and quicker processing speed while Newton mostly held the ball and checked down to running backs — but he completed just two of his final nine passes in 11-on-11s, finishing 4-of-11 on the day.

“Included in those incompletions were three misfires to wide receiver Jakobi Meyers in a four-play span, one of which prompted Jones to slam the ground with both hands in frustration.”

“(Jones) works his butt off and he cares a lot. … I get text messages from him at 6 a.m.”

— quarterback Brian Hoyer, Aug. 1

Aug. 3
“(Day 6 was) easily (Jones’) shakiest of Patriots training camp to date. Jones completed just 1 of 6 passes in full-team drills. … Overall, Newton went 5-for-7 in 11-on-11s and 6-for-10 in 7s. … Newton has been far from perfect this summer, but in our view, Jones needs to outplay him by a significant margin in order to win QB1 status. Six days in, that has not been the case. And Tuesday was a decisive win for the incumbent.”

Aug. 5
“For the third time in the last four practices, Mac Jones received the lion’s share of QB reps. Cam Newton got first ups once again, but Jones stayed behind center for two prolonged stretches in 11-on-11 drills, taking 14 consecutive reps in one and 13 in the other. …

“Jones, who’s rebounded nicely since stumbling through his worst practice of camp on Tuesday, looked sharp amid difficult (rainy) passing conditions. … Over the last four days of camp, Jones has attempted 64 passes in 11-on-11 drills to Newton’s 39, though the latter has led off nearly every period since the start of spring practice.”

Aug. 12
“Newton and Jones shared quarterbacking duties against Washington (in the preseason opener), with the former leading New England’s first two offensive series and the latter taking the next five. (Third-stringer Brian Hoyer played the entire fourth quarter.)

“Jones relied mostly on short and intermediate passes in his first taste of NFL action, finishing 13-of-19 for 87 yards. Ten of his completions came on throws to wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson (six for 39 yards) or running back J.J. Taylor (four for 26 yards) and all 13 gained fewer than 15 yards.

“One of Jones’ best passes of the night was a would-be 34-yard touchdown to Wilkerson that slipped through the wideout’s hands. …

“Jones’ best series came just after halftime. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels upped the tempo, and the rookie responded well, opening the half with eight consecutive completions. … Playing mostly with and against backups, Jones showed moments of promise in his NFL debut but averaged just 4.6 yards per attempt.”

Aug. 19
“Mac Jones paced all quarterbacks in snaps played for the second consecutive week, logging 42 over four series (against the Philadelphia Eagles). Jones led long touchdown drives on three of those (91, 75 and 70 yards).

“Cam Newton, though, was on the field for every snap the Patriots’ starting offensive line played (17 over three series). In last week’s preseason opener, Jones got one drive with the starters and four with the backups. This week, it was all reserves for the rookie.

“Both QBs turned in excellent passing performances, with Newton going 8-of-9 for 103 yards and a touchdown and Jones completing 13 of 19 passes for 143 yards. Receivers dropped three of Jones’ passes — including a long bomb to N’Keal Harry and a would-be touchdown to Devin Asiasi — and he spiked one, meaning just two of his throws were inaccurate.

“Newton has stood atop the Patriots’ quarterback depth chart since the start of spring practice. The fact Jones, who’s outperformed his veteran counterpart at times in training camp, saw his reps with the starters drop in this game rather than rise increases Newton’s already-high odds of opening the season as QB1.”

Aug. 23
“Entering this past weekend, Cam Newton’s grip on the New England Patriots’ starting job appeared as strong as it had been all summer. … 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. …

“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.”

“It is (a big week for Jones).”

— Belichick, Aug. 23

Aug. 24
“Given free rein to take all first-team QB reps Monday, Jones stumbled, turning in an uneven performance in the Patriots’ first practice sans Newton.

“The rookie was much sharper Tuesday.

“Jones completed 29 of 36 passes during 11-on-11 drills, including a 26-for-30 start. His 80.5 percent completion rate was a significant step up from the 54.8 percent mark he posted Monday.”

“I think he’s been progressing really well. Just taking from everything that’s in meeting rooms out on the field and just executing it. You can just tell he’s getting comfortable, and he’s settling in. Everything’s going to work out for him. He’s a hard worker, so I’m looking forward to seeing him do great things.”

— Smith, Aug. 24

“I think Mac is a fine young man. His family should be proud of the way that they raised him and the way he carries himself. The way that he commands respect of even guys like myself — older guys that have been here for a while. And he’s earned that respect by the way that he’s gone about his craft. So he’s been a joy to work with.”

— special teams captain Matthew Slater, Aug. 24

Aug. 25
“Newton’s COVID protocol slip-up opened the door for Jones. The rookie quarterback barged through it Wednesday with the best practice of his New England Patriots tenure.

“Jones was surgically efficient, carving up New York’s first-team defense in the first of two Patriots-Giants joint practices outside Gillette Stadium. He completed 12 of 14 passes in 7-on-7 drills (85.7 percent) and 22 of 26 in full-team 11-on-11s (84 percent) while ceding just four competitive reps to third-stringer Brian Hoyer.

“During one stretch, Jones completed 18 consecutive passes to seven different receivers across multiple periods. He was 15-for-17 in 11-on-11s at one point before a couple of late incompletions. …

“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.”

“He’s a terrific kid. He works hard. Real smart dude who is going to go over the edge. I’ve been impressed with him (since) OTAs with how hard he works. I actually found out yesterday he’s been looking at some of the defensive plays so he can kind of conceptually see how we work and stuff. I give him credit for that. Not a lot of young guys would see that as an opportunity to get that on his own.”

— linebacker Dont’a Hightower, Aug. 26

Aug. 29
“Jones enjoyed his most efficient outing yet against the Giants (in New England’s preseason finale), completing 10 of 14 passes for 156 yards and opening the second half with back-to-back touchdown drives. His 17-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Zuber three minutes into the third quarter was the first of his NFL career. …

“Two of Jones’ incompletions were dropped — one by Gunner Olszewski, one by Zuber in the end zone — and another was batted at the line. His 11.1 yards-per-attempt average was his best of the preseason, up from 7.6 last week against the Philadelphia Eagles and 4.6 against the Washington Football Team.

“Over his three preseason appearances, Jones completed 69.2 percent of his passes (36 of 52) for 388 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions, posting a passer rating of 97.3 and a yards-per-attempt average of 7.5. …

“Despite Jones’ promising performance in his first NFL summer, the preseason rep distribution makes Newton the QB1 favorite, at least to open the season. The veteran incumbent started all three exhibition games, and Jones did not play a single snap behind the Patriots’ starting offensive line in the final two.”

“Not many rookie quarterbacks have ever gotten the reps and the opportunity that he has, and he has embraced it full-on, head-on. He goes out there every day and does the best that he can and has earned the respect of his teammates, which I think is huge.”

— Hoyer, Aug. 30

Aug. 31
“Mac Jones officially is QB1 in New England. The Patriots released veteran quarterback Cam Newton on Tuesday. Jones, the 15th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, will start against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1.”

“I just think Mac has been incredibly poised. … He’s shown that leadership you rarely see in a young player.”

— wide receivers/kick returners coach Troy Brown, Sept. 1

“Mac Jones — he’s going to be that guy. I mean, he’s a rookie, but he plays like a vet.”

— cornerback J.C. Jackson, Sept. 2

 “I think he’s more ready than anybody even really knows.”

— Bourne, Sept. 2
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