Opinion: Patriots' Cam Newton experiment was fascinating, but Mac Jones should be better fit
They tried – Bill Belichick, Cam Newton and the New England Patriots. But ultimately, the union that seemingly made so much sense a year ago – as each sought fresh starts and vindication after rejection from former partners – just didn’t work.
And so, after a preseason that featured continued inconsistencies from Newton, Belichick released the 2015 NFL MVP while turning to rookie Mac Jones. And so begins another new era in Foxborough that Belichick and Co. hope more closely resembles their past.
Belichick has officially turned the page.
Down the stretch of last season, with the Patriots on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, Belichick faced frequent questions about Newton’s job security. The future Hall of Fame coach continued to defend his quarterback, although the offense had plunged to 27th in the NFL in both scoring and passing yards per game. Belichick continued to express confidence in Newton this offseason and preseason while giving him every opportunity to retain his job despite Jones’ arrival.
But with each quarterback’s preseason showcase complete, Belichick changed course, believing Jones gives New England its best shot to win.
“I feel like whatever we do in the next couple days, like every day, should be what's best for our football team, and that's what we'll try to do,” Belichick told reporters Monday morning when asked when he would make an official decision on his starting quarterback.
Then 24 hours later, he turned the team over to Jones.
For two decades, Belichick’s Patriots dominated with an offensive system predicated on timing and precision. Despite his accomplishments and willingness to do whatever was asked of him, Newton proved a less-than-ideal fit in that system. Jones, despite his lack of experience, seemingly possesses the tools to allow them to execute in their tried and true way.
From start to finish, the Newton experiment proved fascinating.
On the streets in 2020 after the rebuilding Carolina Panthers parted with him, Belichick appointed Newton as the successor to Tom Brady. He had to cram after signing just before the start of training camp, and he came to Foxborough amid questions about the health of his surgically repaired throwing shoulder and his ability to fit into the Patriots’ offense.
New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels modified the offense, implementing power running packages to take advantage of Newton’s size and mobility, and for the first three weeks of the season, things looked good. New England went 2-1 and topped the 30-point mark twice. Newton appeared reborn.
But then COVID-19 struck, forcing him into quarantine for more than a week, and when he returned, he never entirely regained his effectiveness.
The Patriots re-signed Newton to another one-year deal this offseason, banking on familiarity breeding improved results. But as training camp and the preseason unfolded, he still didn’t look entirely comfortable. His play both in preseason games and practices proved uneven.
Meanwhile, Jones ascended. He entered the preseason opener in relief of Newton to a standing ovation from New England fans and turned in a solid effort. The following week, he showed more signs of growth while facing off with Philadelphia Eagles starters in joint practices leading up to their preseason outing.
Newton may have opened the door for Jones when a misunderstanding over COVID testing protocol for unvaccinated players kept him away for five days last week. Jones directed the starting offense in joint practices against the New York Giants, giving coaches yet another valuable evaluation window. And Jones followed that with a preseason finale performance against New York that consisted of completing 10 of 14 pass attempts for 156 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
Jones definitely has shown his youth at times. He admitted he still needs to find a balance between playing fast and making hasty and potentially catastrophic decisions.
But he has impressed individuals within the Patriots organization, as well as opposing teams, with his feel for the game. They say he quickly absorbs and processes information, shows an understanding of how to throw his receivers open and executes the offense with the timing that McDaniels and Belichick seek.
Some of Jones’ understanding and effectiveness stems from his background at Alabama, where while directing a star-studded offense, he was tasked with simply putting the ball in the hands of his playmakers. He rarely had to be the hero; he capitalized on the opportunities that presented themselves.
That’s exactly what the Patriots ask of their quarterbacks. Sure, Brady elevated the unit when the time arose. But during his time in New England, Brady's effectiveness depended on his ability to play within the rhythm of the offense while making quick decisions and limiting mistakes. As his comfort grew, he received more freedom, and in clutch moments, put the team on his back.
Jones’ coaches don’t want their rookie donning a cape at this point of his career. They want him to manage the game. Confident in their scheme on both offense and defense, Belichick and his assistants believe they can win utilizing this approach.
And so, rather than belabor the point, Belichick gave Newton his freedom to pursue other opportunities, Jones the chance to operate without looking over his shoulder and the rest of the team to move forward.
Midway through the third quarter of last week’s preseason finale, Newton and Jones shared a moment that in retrospect proved symbolic. Jones had just directed a touchdown drive and returned to the sideline to a parade of high-fives, handshakes and back-slaps from teammates. Jones made his way down the sideline, unaware that Newton – who was 2 for 5 for 10 yards and an interception – was trailing him, trying to congratulate his young teammate. Eventually, Newton caught up, grabbed Jones’ hand and slapped it, patted him on the helmet and walked off.
Belichick’s decision wouldn't come for another two days, but the torch had already been passed.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.