PATS REPORTER

Perry: Why Newton looked like Pats' starter at Eagles joint practice

PATS REPORTER

PHILADELPHIA -- The scenario was clear-cut. It's always clear-cut with Bill Belichick when the focus of a particular practice period is what he calls "situational football." No room for misinterpretation.

Third down. From the 10-yard line. Seven seconds left. Down four.

It was just practice. The first of two joint sessions with the Eagles at their well-manicured NovaCare facility. But these sessions carry with them an added level of intensity and competitive spirit. And the Patriots knew they had to get into the end zone. 

It was what they'll often call a "gotta have it" situation. That meant their mindset, their approach, had to change. While the Patriots are often focused on limiting their mistakes -- particularly turnovers -- when playing for Belichick, this was different.

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Cam Newton's mindset did change given the circumstances presented to him. He had to cut it loose, he thought. He had to give someone a chance to make a play or else the game would be over. No sense in taking a sack if the clock was only going to run out on him.

And so Newton took the snap, sat in the pocket and scanned. He looked to his left, bodies -- those of his teammates and of Eagles defenders -- crammed together as they're wont to do deep in the red zone. Newton didn't like what he saw, apparently, because he whipped his head back to the middle of the field and uncorked a fastball.

Tight end Devin Asiasi looked like the intended target. Hard to tell because the ball never got particularly close to him. It was intercepted by linebacker Eric Wilson.

 

"Last play," Newton said later. "It was third down, down by four ... Gotta give somebody a chance."

Was it the last play, though? Seven seconds is a relative eternity to be behind the line of scrimmage. There's no clock on display that was available to reporters in attendance. But odds are that had Newton's attempt to Asiasi gone incomplete -- or had he decided to throw it away -- he might've had a second or two to run a fourth-down try.

Those situational football plays are the ones that win and lose games. And at this time of year, they might win or lose someone a job.

Newton still looks like the Patriots starter based on when he takes his snaps (first, before Mac Jones) and with whom he plays (first-teamers). But he admitted after the workout that Belichick hasn't told him he's starting Week 1 of the regular season.

The door is open for Jones, who wasn't stellar on Monday either, which we'll detail below. And moments like that one from Newton seem to be keeping it ajar. 

The numbers

Here's the quick-and-dirty on how Patriots quarterbacks fared against the Eagles.

In competitive 11-on-11 periods, Newton went 8-for-13, with a pick, one rep wiped away by an offensive pass interference penalty (N'Keal Harry) and a Kristian Wilkerson drop mixed in. I also counted four dropbacks where Newton clearly would have been sacked, and thus those attempts weren't logged.

Player 11-on-11 7-on-7 Total
Cam Newton 8 for 13, INT 4 for 6 12 for 19 (63.2%)
Mac Jones 13 for 20 5 for 6 18 for 26 (69.2%)

Jones, meanwhile, went 13-for-20 in those periods. Two of his passes were dropped, one by Wilkerson and one by Sony Michel. 

In the competitive 7-on-7 work, Newton went 4-for-6. Jones went 5-for-6.

Snap judgments

Why Newton looked like the starter: It wasn't Newton's play that gave him the look of a starter. He was hesitant to throw at times. He threw into traffic. There was the "gotta have it" moment that yielded an interception. There were four more throws -- including two near-picks by linebacker Alex Singleton in 7-on-7 work -- that were broken up by the Philadelphia defense.

It was when he played. It was behind whom he played. 

Through several training camp practices, it appeared as though the Patriots were making a conscious effort to give both Newton and Jones significant reps behind the top offensive line group.

On Monday, Newton received almost every snap with the team's top blockers. Jones received three such opportunities about midway through the session. He handed off once to Damien Harris and threw incomplete twice, nearly throwing a pick of his own to safety Andrew Adams.

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Perhaps that breakdown will change at Tuesday's session. But through one practice away from home, the dispersion of the reps was clear. Newton remained No. 1. Jones remained No. 2. If an Eagles fan watching Monday hadn't followed a single report from Foxboro all summer, based on the Patriots rep breakdown, it would've been hard to argue to them that, "No, this is actually a quarterback competition."

 

But had that fan simply looked at Newton's reps in a vacuum, it would've been just as clear that the Patriots should be considering alternative options. 

In 7-on-7 work, Newton's first throw was nearly picked by Singleton. His third was a stared-down completion to James White. His fifth was a lengthy rep, with Newton holding the football behind the line and waiting for something to develop, before completing one to Kendrick Bourne. The sixth was another near-pick by Singleton. 

Newton's first seven throws in 11-on-11 appeared to be either checkdowns or plays designed to hit running backs. One was batted at the line. One was late on a shallow cross to Matt LaCosse that led to LaCosse getting drilled by defensive end Derek Barnett.

Barnett, going after the football, couldn't turn in time to get out of LaCosse's way, it appeared. The throw led LaCosse into the defender, and LaCosse immediately went down in a heap. He left practice and didn't return.

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Newton had one pass down the field dropped by Wilkerson. And he didn't get much help from his offensive line, either, which had its hands full with the Eagles front. But Newton threw a near-interception from the 10 on his second-to-last throw of the day. Then the came the pick. Not what he was looking for. 

This week -- the joint practices and the preseason game -- could be a last stand of sorts for Newton. At some point the Patriots will have to decide which quarterback should get the bulk of the reps with top offensive teammates in order to properly prepare for Week 1. That Newton saw the vast majority of first-team plays Monday could mean, as Newton put it earlier this offseason, this is "put up or shut up" time for him.

Jones far from perfect: Given that Jones had an opportunity to work against second-team defenders for the bulk of Monday's practice, and given that he's in the running to be the Week 1 starter, you might assume he carved up his opposition.

Not so much. 

While his numbers would suggest an on-point day, he appeared to be late or behind on several of his competitive reps. Three in a row in 7-on-7 -- a throw behind Wilkerson, a late attempt to Jakobi Meyers, a deep ball to Nelson Agholor that was completed but slightly behind -- were just off.

Like Newton, he also found traffic and nearly had a few ugly turnovers of his own.

Jones should've been picked at least once by Adams -- his lone pass attempt behind the first-team offensive line. Jones also missed a throw wide to Meyers. He threw a dangerous deep ball off his back foot to Gunner Olszewski that was broken up by a pair of Eagles defensive backs. He attempted another to Harry in the hurry-up period at the end that was broken up by two more Eagles defenders. 

 

Where Jones won the day was that while his relatively inaccurate throws were sometimes still caught, and sometimes for explosive gains, Newton's often seemed to find the mitts of opposing defenders. 

And when Jones connected down the field, the completions were on-time and accurate.

The two best throws of the day in competitive periods came off of Jones' right hand. One was a bucket throw down the left sideline to Agholor. The other was Jones' final throw of the day in the "gotta have it" period. He found Harry behind a corner and in front of a safety for a touchdown to effectively end the practice. 

Jones also had a moment of assertiveness when he went after Bourne following an 11-on-11 incompletion. The pass landed in Bourne's general direction but not necessarily close to him. Bourne's palms went skyward, confused. Jones was hot.

The two discussed it after the fact. Then Mick Lombardi had a few words for Bourne. Then Josh McDaniels. Bourne eventually tossed his helmet to the ground, gently. Apparently he'd screwed up the route. And the rookie let him hear it. No hard feelings after the fact, though.

When Jones addressed reporters before the Patriots boarded buses and took off, Bourne walked by, smiled big and said, "Love you, Mac!" 

Not a bad sign for a young quarterback. He's demanding because his position demands that he is. But he doesn't seem to carry himself in a showboaty or condescending way. In fact, his teammates seem to appreciate him for those honest moments, not despite them.

Jones' understanding of the offense is advanced for someone his age. It has to be for him to be able to pull off moments like that one with a veteran wideout. 

But to beat out Newton -- to take advantage of that door ajar -- he'll have to string together practices where the quality and consistency of his throws are just as indicative of his precociousness. They weren't on Monday.