The New England Patriots spent big in the offseason to upgrade talent on the roster and hope that last season’s mediocrity was only temporary.
The Patriots, in their first season in about two decades without star quarterback Tom Brady on the roster, missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Although there were plenty of issues on the roster, much of the blame for the team’s lackluster offense and overall poor performance was directed at Brady’s replacement, former MVP Cam Newton.
Newton’s athleticism and running ability make him a much different quarterback than Brady, so the offense was bound to change. But Newton also dealt with injuries and was ineffective in the passing game. He threw just eight touchdown passes in 15 games (his lowest total in any season in his career in which he’s played more than two games).
But the Patriots still brought Newton back, hoping upgraded talent around him could help his production rise. His stats weren’t all bad last season – he completed 66 percent of his passes, the second-best mark of his career, and rushed for nearly 600 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even after drafting Alabama quarterback Mac Jones in the first round, it still seemed like the Patriots would at least go with Newton to start the season.
That plan changed when the Patriots somewhat surprisingly cut Newton on August 31, producing a ripple effect on the NFL odds market. There’s speculation that Newton’s decision to not get the COVID-19 vaccine played into the team’s decision to release him, as the Patriots reportedly didn’t like the idea of risking having a quarterback miss significant amounts of game or practice time if he was infected or was a close contact of an infected person. That reason alone seems a bit suspicious, though – Jones gave similar murky answers as Newton when he discussed his vaccine status earlier in the month.
There was also a lot of pressure on the franchise to start Jones over Newton. Fans gave Jones a raucous ovation in his debut, compared to lukewarm (at best) feelings toward Newton. Former Patriot Scott Zolak, now a Boston area radio personality, also created controversy when he oddly suggested that “rap music” was somehow to blame for Newton’s up and down play.
The focus and pressure obviously turn to Jones in New England now, and he actually doesn’t have much margin for error – the Patriots also cut veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer, making Jones the only quarterback on the roster at the moment. Along with leading a storied franchise with playoff implications, Jones now also has to deal with the pressure of being Brady’s anointed successor.
The biggest advantage Jones seemed to have over Newton in his preseason and training camp performances was his willingness to throw the ball downfield. Newton was often criticized last season for not taking chances, and Jones has seemed less risk-averse. With more weapons in the offense, those gambles could pay off even if they do lead to some mistakes as well.
Although the release this late in camp is surprising, it shouldn’t come as a total shock – Bill Belichick has been consistently adamant that the rookie would have a legitimate shot at winning the starting job.
“I don’t think you want to evaluate players at any position off of one or two plays, or maybe a day. So, from a consistency standpoint that’s always important, and obviously production,” Belichick told the Bangor Daily News in July. “So hopefully those things will be good, and I’m sure it’ll be a hard decision. We’ll see how it goes.”
The full body of work of both players this preseason obviously led to this decision. But that doesn’t mean this is the end of the line for Newton. There are still plenty of quarterback-needy teams out there, and possibly some openings that could come up during the season.
NBC Sports lists Houston, Dallas, Denver, Washington, and Baltimore as teams that either need backup help or who have a starting quarterback situation that is far from stable. Miami and Indianapolis could also be teams to watch.