When Belichick's answer about good quarterback play changed ever so slightly last week from what we'd seen in the past, that was noteworthy. What was once "decision-making and accuracy" became "decision-making and anticipation."
In the process of trying to decipher the difference, I came back to a more-than-a-decade-old Q&A with Belichick conducted by then-Yahoo! columnist Jason Cole. It's one we've referenced before because Belichick boiled it down so simply at the time: Decision-making and accuracy are the two most vital quarterbacking traits.
But in re-reading the back-and-forth from 2009, Belichick provided another answer about the position that seems relevant to what's going on with his team in 2020 -- specifically at the quarterback spot with Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham.
Here's the key exchange, which sheds light on how Belichick learned more about Matt Cassel after Cassel was thrust into the starter's role in 2008.
Cole: When you're looking at quarterbacks, what do you examine most?
Belichick: One of the things we saw last year with (Matt) Cassel when we put him out there: … You put a guy in there who hasn't played, the first couple of weeks you wonder if you made the right decision. And then, as they grow in the offense and they control it and it's their offense and their team, sometimes those players go from here (holds his hand low) to here (holds his hand high) and sometimes they don't.
Sometimes they just muddle along and they never grow. Cassel grew from the San Diego game last year to the Miami game to the San Francisco game. There were a few plays at first and then it was, "Hey, this guy is a legitimate starting NFL quarterback." The funny thing is that happened after Cassel wasn't really that great in preseason. He was OK, but nothing like what we saw in the season.
It changed when he took all the walkthroughs. He was the guy in the meetings, he took all the reps in practice, he was the guy with the game plan, he was the guy saying, "Hey, I don't like this route, I like this." He had the input and it was catered to him, just like how Brady says, "I don't like that play." OK, we've got plenty of other plays. But that might be a play that Cassel likes running, but he doesn't say anything because he's not the quarterback at the time.
When he became the quarterback, he started talking about it and saying what he liked. I think all quarterbacks go through that. So where they are now and where they are going to be, as they grow into it and the coaches figure out who they are, sometimes the only way you find out is to actually let them do it.
Cole: Yeah, but you actively are looking for that answer in advance of just doing it.
Belichick: Yeah, but you never really know until you get them in there. Yeah, this guy can read this and he can do that, he can handle this type of situation and play. Then you get them out there and you find out that he may not do that, but he's pretty good at this other stuff and you do more of that. If he's got a good release on the deep ball, throw more deep balls. If he's not good on the deep ball, but he's good on the run, do that.
As long as the guy is a good decision-maker and he's accurate and he's consistent, you can give him something you can count on and you have a pretty good chance. The hard part is when they're inconsistent or they're not very accurate or they don't make good decisions because ultimately you're going to need a throw, they're going to miss it; you're going to need a decision, they're not going to make it and that's when it comes apart.
The Patriots are reportedly ready to start Newton on Monday night, which would be consistent with how they've handled Newton and how they've said they would handle these last two weeks of the season, despite being eliminated from postseason contention.
They are going to try to win these games. They feel that Newton gives them the best chance to win.
But a larger question looms: What are the Patriots planning to do at quarterback for 2021 and beyond? Belichick has said Jarrett Stidham is an ascending player. There must be some modicum of confidence in Stidham because he remains the backup quarterback over the still-rostered Brian Hoyer. Stidham looked like the best option to start for the Patriots this season before Newton was acquired in late June.
Would the Patriots not benefit from acquiring a little more information on the 2019 fourth-rounder by playing him against the Bills and Jets? Does he have a shot at being a starter? Is he a viable long-term backup? Is he worthy of being on the roster in 2021?
Two games of information might not be enough to definitively answer any of those questions. But a little information going into next offseason couldn't hurt.
Stidham, of course, hasn't done much in games to prove that he's worthy of added reps. In his regular-season snaps over the last two seasons, he's attempted 37 passes and has a yards-per-attempt figure of 6.1 to go along with two touchdowns and four picks. He's been sacked four times.
But here are Cassel's numbers in three pro seasons before taking over for the injured Tom Brady and becoming the starter in 2008: 39 attempts and 6.5 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and two picks. He was sacked four times.
Belichick may believe that Stidham simply isn't ready, that more work now might in some way be detrimental to his overall development. Maybe Belichick would have said the same of Cassel at the end of Cassel's second season.
But Stidham has an opportunity Cassel never had: The Patriots are already out of the postseason mix and their passing game has been among the league's least efficient (29th in EPA per dropback) with Newton running the controls.
Odds are Stidham will never be Cassel, who made a Pro Bowl in 2010 with the Chiefs and started 81 games over 14 seasons.
But 12 years ago, Belichick saw first-hand how starter reps in practice, game experience and some say in game-planning can lead to real growth for a young quarterback. They just need an opportunity, because you never really know until you get them in there.