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Curran: Mac Jones earned Pats' starting QB job, but will he get it?

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There's almost unanimous belief that Bill Belichick will name Cam Newton his starting quarterback.

It still doesn’t look that way to me. Because when you compare two key factors -- workload and performance -- both are in Mac Jones’ favor. What’s Newton got going for him?

That he’s been the first quarterback on the field in three straight preseason games and the first one taking reps throughout camp. And that Belichick has -- on draft night and at the start of camp -- said that Newton is "our starter." 

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You call that persuasive evidence? 

Start with Belichick’s declarations. On draft night, he said Newton would remain the starter until someone played better than him. Folks have been ignoring that second part for four months.  Meanwhile, Jones has been better. At almost every practice. Arguably in each of the three preseason games.

Declaration No. 2 was at the start of camp. But there was very much an "at this point ..." attached to Belichick’s answer. He also spoke of players having to establish their level every year. So those declarations might as well have been written in sand.

As for Newton consistently taking first reps or starting preseason games? Could mean something. Could be symbolic given that Newton’s the veteran. If Jones never worked with the starters -- and he has quite a bit -- then it would mean more to me.


But when you get right down to it, Newton’s just got words and symbols on his side. Jones has something concrete. Reps and production. And how much you work matters.

Consider this: 20 years ago tonight, the Patriots played Washington in their final game of the 2001 preseason.

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Guess how many drives Drew Bledsoe led that night? Seven. Bledsoe played almost the entire first half, going 14 for 22 for 145 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t give way to Tom Brady until there was 1:45 left in the second quarter. Brady wound up going 11 for 19 for 166 and a touchdown but that’s beside the point.

It was important to Belichick and Charlie Weis that Bledsoe, nine-year veteran, get the work then and throughout that preseason. And he got the work. Bledsoe was 36 for 63 that preseason.

Meanwhile, in 2002, Brady threw it 65 times as he entered his first season as the starter. 

Sunday night against the Giants, Newton was out there for two drives and threw it five times. That after missing the first three days of practice last week. On Newton’s only day at joint practices, he threw it four times in competitive, 11-on-11 situations. The week before, Newton took two drives against the Eagles and threw it nine times. Newton’s thrown it 21 times in the Patriots' three preseason games.

Meanwhile, Mac Jones threw it 52 times in three games. He was out there for all the practices against the Giants, including Wednesday’s Dutch Oven Practice when he had 40 competitive throws during a two-hour practice in sweltering heat.

Into the fire

Cam Newton's total passing attempts in three preseason games
Mac Jones' total passing attempts in three preseason games

It’s not like Newton’s a seasoned veteran in the Patriots system. He didn’t get here until late June 2020, there was no preseason and he missed time with COVID. This was a big summer for Newton. The offensive personnel’s been overhauled, everybody is back in the facility, he’s healthier and he was able to go full-immersion in a playbook that’s quite different than what he used with the Panthers. Wouldn’t the Patriots want to maximize his time on the field?

Has the game changed so much that a quarterback doesn’t really need preseason reps? Has Belichick changed so much that it doesn’t matter if a guy misses three key practices and has a vaccination status that puts his availability in peril every day?

Belichick employed the one-size-fits-all answer that he would “do what’s best for the football team” when he was pressed Monday morning on who would start. Of course he will. But he believed he was doing what was best for the football team when he slowly ushered Tom Brady toward the door with Jimmy Garoppolo as the heir apparent.

Brady threw 40 touchdown passes and won a Super Bowl in Tampa last year. Garoppolo missed 10 games and is en route to being phased out in San Francisco. The Patriots added Newton in June, had to bench him three times and went 7-9. So, yeah.


What grave damage will be caused to the 2021 season if Mac Jones doesn’t take the first snap of the first game? None. The Patriots can absolutely win with Newton. If they won seven times with him last year when the offensive “weaponry” was akin to a butter knife and the defense was depleted by opt outs, they’ll easily be a double-digit win team with those areas fixed and Newton playing so much better than he was.

But the simple fact is that Jones has outperformed Newton. By a wide margin. And if, as Belichick has said in the past, the players decide who plays with their performance, Jones has made the Patriots' decision for them. He clinched it last Wednesday.

I guess that’s why it matters. For a couple decades, we’ve been told draft status, salary, age, etc., doesn’t decide who takes the field in Foxboro. Performance matters. Your “level” matters. Newton’s level hasn’t been bad. But Jones’ has been higher for a month. Virtually every single practice.

If the reward for that is watching from the sidelines? Then things have changed.