Ever since news of Cam Newton's release broke on the morning of August 31, a simple question has hovered unanswered: Why? What happened?
The prevailing opinion was that -- even though Mac Jones was clearly the Patriots future -- Newton would be their present for at least the early part of the 2021 season. But Newton’s hold on the job wasn’t as solid as people perceived. Every Bill Belichick assurance that Newton was atop the depth chart was accompanied by a caveat. Meanwhile, every time the Patriots tried to heap more on Jones’ plate to see if he could finish it, he did.
By the end of August, Jones wasn’t miles and miles better than Newton. But with his arrow pointing up at the age of 23 and Newton's pointing down at age 32, the Patriots decided that the future was now.
Here, with the benefit of some hindsight, is how Cam Newton came to be an ex-Patriot and Mac Jones came to be their starter.
March 12: Cam Newton re-signs with the Patriots
Just days before the start of free agency, Newton agreed to a one-year deal that was reported as being worth close to $14M. Closer inspection put the number closer to $6 million. The news was generally seen as a sign the Patriots were anointing him their 2021 starter. My read was different. “I don’t think they’re looking right now as, ‘Cam’s the answer. We’re done here.’ It’s because he’s such a big name and the timing of it that people think this is it and they’re settling. I don’t. I think this is a cover-your-posterior move with this signing to make sure they have someone in place to convince (free agents) who are coming in to say, ‘We have a plan. We can start scheming and talking about how we want to look in 2021 offensively because we have this guy. But we’re not done yet.’ ”
To that victory lap I will add this utterance I issued a couple days later.
"Why can't Jarrett Stidham succeed with Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor? He fits that," Curran said. "We can agree that Jarrett Stidham throws the ball better than Cam Newton. He's not a better quarterback yet, perhaps, but he is a better thrower. Can't Jarrett Stidham conceivably, if he beats Cam out over the summer, be your answer? Wouldn't he be better in 2021 than Mac Jones?"
March 31: Robert Kraft weighs in
With Bill Belichick bunkered since the first week of January, it fell to Robert Kraft to give a state-of-the-team address in late March. Kraft was very candid about the Patriots draft shortcomings leading to the profligate free-agent spending the team had just engaged in. And while Kraft lobbed bouquets at both Newton and Jarrett Stidham, he also added, "One way or another," Kraft said, "we have to get that position solidified."
April 29: Patriots draft Mac Jones 15th overall
Pre-draft speculation was rampant over whether the Patriots would aggressively seek a quarterback in the first round. Turned out, aggressive was never a part of it. They just let the game come to them and took Jones at 15.
That move immediately put Newton on the clock, which I wrote the day after the draft.
“When and if it becomes clear that Jones can deliver the ball to Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, etc., more accurately and predictably than Newton, the party will be over for Cam as the starter.
“And despite Belichick’s attempt to ward off daily questions about the position by peeing on Newton’s territory Thursday night, it’s coming.
“Perhaps the best aspect of Newton’s presence is that Jones is succeeding him and not Brady. Newton already took the slings and arrows -- very capably, I might add -- of being the Brady successor. Jones will be replacing a washed-up Newton, not the greatest quarterback of all-time. That’s not unimportant.”
As for Belichick’s declaration of Newton being the starter -- which so many put so much stock in for the next four months -- here’s the full quote.
"Cam is our quarterback. Whatever time Jarrett (Stidham) or Mac are ready to challenge and compete, we'll see how that goes," Belichick said.
Not exactly a lifetime appointment, was it?
June 15-17: Minicamp practices
The first time we saw Mac Jones was at OTAs, he was a mixed bag performance-wise but it was very obvious he was getting a lot put on his plate. When mandatory minicamp came in mid-June, Jones opened it up by ... opening it up. It was eye-opening and had to catch the eye of Newton as well, who actually responded with a fantastic performance on the final day of minicamp that gave the Patriots coaching staff something to mull heading into the break.
Could Jones continue on the same steep learning curve the Patriots put him on? Would Newton get to training camp a month later and put together a performance that would allow the Patriots to buy time with Jones if he wasn’t ready?
July 31: Cam’s Our Starter Part 2
After four days of unpadded training camp activity, Jones had outperformed not only expectations but Newton as well. Jones was decisive and accurate. Newton was painfully slow on too many reps. When I asked Newton about it, he acknowledged that there were times he’d scan and think to himself, “What do I do? What do I do? What do I do? It’s just taking the brain a little longer at times. But hopefully with a lot of repetitions, it’ll be good.” When Belichick was asked about the position, he said, “Cam’s our starting quarterback, I think I said that, so ...”
When asked about a need to make a decision and what he needed to see, though, Belichick added, “From a consistency standpoint, that’s always important. Obviously production. Hopefully those things will be good and I’m sure it’ll be a hard decision. But we’ll see how it goes. We’ll just let them play and try to do what we feel like is best for the team based on their performance.”
For the second time, Belichick had followed up the supposed appointment of Newton with a comment that showed the competition was most definitely underway.
August 3 and 5: The first padded practices
The first time the Patriots put on the pads in camp was Tuesday, August 3. It was a run-heavy day but Newton was outstanding. Jones, meanwhile, scuffled. And moped. Especially after he concluded practice with a string of incompletions in the red zone. How would Jones respond? That was a big conversation point going into Wednesday and Thursday.
Here’s how Phil Perry described the response:
“For the first time during this summer's Patriots training camp, one quarterback established himself as decisively the better quarterback for two consecutive days. It was the quarterback in whom the Patriots invested a first-round pick this spring.
"Neither Mac Jones nor Cam Newton has displayed much in the way of consistency over the course of eight training camp practices. But after a strong showing on Wednesday, it was Jones who looked like the best quarterback on the field during a rainy Thursday practice conducted in full pads.
"That the pads were on for Jones' latest strong outing was meaningful. Bill Belichick called padded practices "real football" earlier in the day during a back-and-forth with reporters. Josh McDaniels explained on Wednesday that fully-padded reps do more for an offense's timing than non-padded sessions.
"Additionally, Jones' performance in pads was noteworthy in that he had one of his worst practices in camp when the pads came on for the first time on Tuesday. Now, with back-to-back good practices under his belt, Jones can attempt to start "stacking days," as is often heard around the Patriots facility this time of year.”
August 12: First preseason game
As the first preseason game approached, Phil and I batted around whether or not Jones had done enough to that point to possibly overtake Newton. More importantly, we wondered if Newton had fallen back enough to give Jones an opening. Because Newton hadn’t been that bad at all.
When the first preseason game against WFT came around, Newton got two drives to begin the game. Twelve snaps. Enter Jones, who had an outstanding first game that confirmed what most of the media had been reporting from camp. Jones was decisive, accurate and efficient. Heading into a critical juncture where the Patriots would spend back-to-back weeks in joint practices with the Eagles and Giants, Jones continued to do every possible thing he could to wrest the starter’s job away.
August 16: The Philly Situational Pick
On the first day of joint practices with the Eagles, neither Newton nor Jones was particularly sharp. Really, the Eagles carried the day against both Patriots quarterbacks. But there was one play in particular in Newton’s “meh” day that just felt like a terrible decision.
The situation was set: third-and-goal from the Eagles 4 with seven seconds left. Patriots need a touchdown, trailing by four points.
And what did Newton decide to do? Basically throw it into an Eagles team meeting at the back of the end zone. Interception. "Last play," Newton said later. "It was third down, down by four ... Gotta give somebody a chance."
But the play didn’t take seven seconds. Newton could have thrown it out of the end zone rather than into a cluster and had a fourth-down chance with the clock stopped. That play following on the heels of a handful of other “gotta have it” failures during earlier practices illustrated the kind of situational decision-making an 11-year veteran should have been above but wasn’t.
After the practice, Newton was pressed on whether Bill Belichick told him he’d be the opening day starter. Newton’s answer? Of course not.
August 17: Checkdown king
The second of the two joint practices with Philly was a brief one. Jones threw a red-zone pick aimed at Asiasi just as Newton had the day before. But the big takeaway from the quarterback performances was the number of checkdown throws Newton opted to take. So many that Eagles second-year backup DB K’Von Walker started chirping Newton as the “Checkdown King.”
Kinda disrespectful. But not untrue. Over the course of training camp, the frequency and success rate of Jones’ downfield throws exceeded Newton’s. Was Newton wrong to throw underneath so often? Not really. If it’s there, take it. But was there more available elsewhere if he pressed it? Oftentimes, there was.
August 19: Preseason Game No. 2
The Eagles pulled the plug on this game before it even began, sitting their starters on both sides of the ball at the outset. Which meant that, even though Newton and the rest of the Patriots’ 1s lit it up in their two drives (8 of 9 for 103 and a TD), there was an asterisk attached. Jones went 13-of-19 guiding backups against backups.
He got in a two-minute drive for the second straight week. He had a downfield dime dropped for the second straight week. And the way the Eagles treated the game should have announced to everyone what would become clear soon – the exhibition games don’t matter as much as the joint practices.
August 23: Cam Tangled Up In COVID
The Patriots had a break after returning from Philly. During that break, Newton got clearance from the Patriots to go to Atlanta for, reportedly, a second opinion on a medical issue. An as-yet-still-unexplained medical issue.
Since Newton was unvaccinated, a medical appointment was one of the only allowable reasons under which Newton could travel as long as he got a BioReference test without missing a day. Reportedly, Newton got tested but it wasn’t an approved test. It was a “misunderstanding” the Patriots explained in a statement. What the misunderstanding was -- like the nature of the ailment that led to Newton’s departure -- is still unknown.
But Monday morning we learned Newton was “out of cadence” and wouldn’t be allowed at the facility again until Thursday. Which opened the door wide for Jones to take every rep and build on the momentum he’d quite clearly built. During that Monday practice, Jones was fair at best. When the Giants came to town on Wednesday, that would change.
August 25: Mac Jones rests his case
On an absolutely sweltering Wednesday, the Giants and Patriots practiced for close to two-and-a-half hours. With Newton still in COVID protocol, it was all Mac. And he was as good as he could possibly be. He completed (unofficially) 35-for-40 in competitive reps according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. He completed 18 in a row. This was my take on the workout and the rest of the beat writers there saw it similarly. That workout, in my opinion, sealed it.
Newton -- who so far had had just four preseason series and missed a critical few days because of a screw-up -- simply didn’t have the time to make up the gap Jones built. Unless the Patriots gave him a ton of work against the Giants in the final joint practice and in the final preseason game to make his case.
August 26: Return of the Cam
Thursday was fascinating. With Newton back at practice, I wondered if he’d get a ton of competitive, 11-on-11 work. He did not. He was mostly effective with the work he got. But he only took eight reps with the ones while Jones took 20. Newton did lead an efficient TD drive while Jones needed multiple third and fourth-down conversions, but even that could be viewed as favorable for Jones. He converted them.
The upshot of the competition that we often didn’t focus on was this: Newton’s performance wasn’t just measured against Jones but against where an 11-year veteran should be; Jones’ performance was measured against where he was in his first NFL training camp. Not only should the decision-making and production not be close, Jones never should have had the edge. Unless he was better.
August 29: Preseason Game No. 3
Before the Patriots and Giants kicked off, Newton floated an Instagram post in which he noted he was “QB#1.” Most folks perceived that as being Newton revealing his status on the depth chart, not his jersey number. And when he started the game, it was viewed on our air as a “foregone conclusion” that Newton would be the starter. But, once again, Newton’s workload was just two drives and five throws. That after a week where Jones got all those reps in the joint practice? It didn’t add up.
August 30: Deliberation day
With preseason done, it was time to try and pin down Belichick on who the starter would be. He wasn’t tipping his hand which -- to me -- meant there was still a decision to be made. I asked Belichick if he would drag the decision out to make things harder on the Dolphins. Belichick countered that it could be argued it would be better for the team if they knew who their quarterback was. To me, everything -- except the guy who took the first snaps in the preseason games -- pointed to Jones being the starter. Production. Workload. Upside. All of it.
August 31: Cam out. Mac in
Mid-morning, the news came down that Newton had been released. While the fact he wouldn’t start wasn’t a surprise to me, the fact he wasn’t going to be on the team at all was an eyebrow-raiser. Especially after Belichick said about an hour before news broke that Newton, "Certainly started at a much higher point than what he did last year. So, definitely moving in the right direction."
Newton’s release spawned a whole slew of questions that we still don’t have answers to. Was he offered a chance to stay? Would he have stayed? Did he believe his vax status cost him his spot? Did he acknowledge he was outperformed by Jones? Will we get those answers?
Maybe we will ... on Funky Friday.