Is the fact the Eagles gave all their good players – and I mean ALLLLLLL their good players – the night off a disqualifying detail when judging the combined 21 for 28 for 249 yard night of the Patriots’ two lead quarterbacks? No. But it’s a very large asterisk.
The Patriots had three days of work against the Eagles. What we saw Thursday looked very little like what we saw on, for instance, Monday when the Eagles took it to the Patriots on both sides of the ball. In that practice, they bottled up the Patriots running game, harried Cam Newton and did damage in the passing game, especially with their tight ends in the red zone.
Two of those tight ends, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, played seven snaps between them on Thursday night. Jalen Hurts, of course, didn’t play and it Joe Flacco’s expiration date was back in about February of 2015. The Patriots should be very good defensively this year but forecasting anything off of that matchup? Useless.
I put a little more stock in the offensive performance. But not much.
The Patriots offense didn’t deal with Darius Slay, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Javon Hargrave, Ryan Kerrigan and Josh Sweat. Corner Steven Nelson played nine snaps.
We saw Cam Newton have his most impressive throwing performance since last season’s Seattle game. That performance– not coincidentally – came against a team that allowed 1,292 passing yards in the first three games (an average of more than 430 yards per game).
When Newton has time – and he had a ton of it Thursday night – his mechanics are on point. His arm slot doesn’t drop, his lead foot doesn’t go shooting left of his intended target and he keeps his head over his feet rather than letting it lean back. That’s because he can step up in the pocket and crow-hop into his throws. When he’s made to move laterally or abort his big windup because a read isn’t there, things get wonky.
And we actually saw that on a second-and-11 throw to James White on the Patriots second drive. While moving up and to the right, Newton had a simple, short flip to White in the flat. That’s the kind of tweener throw Newton sometimes has a hard time with because he’s just not great at throwing change-ups. Newton sailed the throw high. White was able to reel it in but it’s telling that, on the rare occasion where Newton had some business to deal with, he was a little off-target.
Newton did have a rep on the next drive that offset that throw to White with a tidy checkdown to Sony Michel that gained six after Newton was pawed at and had to reset his feet.
So what from Newton’s performance will have future relevance? Arm strength. Ball placement downfield. Offensive command (although having to burn a timeout on the second drive was a little mystifying). Confidence. A continually improving level of decisiveness. It’s nothing like the glacial pace of the first week of practice. It’s also a very nice outing stacked on Tuesday’s highly-accurate (but not very adventurous) effort by Newton.
But the bottom line is this: If Newton, an 11-year pro playing with his starters against scrubs, DIDN’T shred the Eagles, then we’d have a story.
Do we grade Mac Jones on the same curve? Not exactly. He’s still an NFL newborn. And he was playing with the Patriots backups against the Eagles backups. It wasn’t varsity vs. JV as it was with Cam. Jones also had a little more adversity to deal with thanks to penalties and he had dig-out throws for first downs on second-and-13 and third-and-13. So it was more impressive because of his relative inexperience, the players he was surrounded by and the down-and-distance adversity.
But it still wasn’t breathtaking because – in terms of accuracy, command and efficiency – it’s what we’ve been seeing since July 28. This is how Mac Jones plays. And Mac Jones throwing against a vanilla, zone, preseason defense with backups on the field? Even if he’s new to the NFL, he’s already established a baseline that he can do that pretty well.
The upshot for Newton, Jones, the Patriots offense and defense? Nice work against the Eagles on Thursday night. But “nice work” was the only acceptable outcome against what Philly trotted out there.