There’s a quote attributed to the great John Madden: “If you think you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none.”
The 2021 Patriots have a chance to put a knife through the heart of that old saw. Platoon, baby. Pluh. Toon.
I hear you already ...
“How’s that supposed to work? Cam’s supposed to come in and run read-option on the goal-line and in third-and-short? Mac’s out there on third-and-8? You think Newton’s going to go for that? How does either quarterback get a rhythm if they’re in and out? What about the offensive line? Stupid idea. Belichick will never go for that.”
Don’t be so sure about that.
Bill Belichick’s is one of the most innovative, outside-the-box coaches in NFL history. Josh McDaniels is a chip off Bill’s block and the last three seasons are shining examples of McDaniels getting blood from a stone with an undermanned roster.
Suddenly, there’s an embarrassment of offensive riches at their disposal. At running back. At wide receiver. At tight end. And at quarterback, where they have one guy who ran for 592 yards on a team-high 137 carries and 12 touchdowns last season and another guy whose decision-making and accuracy are so superior it’s not even a discussion as to who the better thrower is.
You’re going to argue that using two quarterbacks is too risky, too unconventional, a potential disaster that will open Belichick up for an avalanche of criticism. Fine. But ask yourself this: Has Bill Belichick ever cared what the neighbors think?
Want to know what got me started on this jag? Devin McCourty. Earlier this week I asked him about the adjustments the defense is making to each quarterback.
“It’s something that I think is great for the season, because it’s something that we see week in and week out,” McCourty began. “The game plan that we have for like, a Lamar Jackson. If we see Baltimore, we’ll be a little different than if we play Tennessee and we’ve got (Ryan) Tannehill. It’s something that we talk about. We’re paying attention.
“If we go out there and Cam’s in the game, we’re like, ‘OK, Cam’s at quarterback.’ Same thing if we go out there and Mac’s in. It's something that we have to build awareness as a defense. We do that if James White is the running back. If Damien is the running back. Those are things that we talk about in the huddle pre-snap.
"With quarterback you don’t always get that in a training camp to have two guys that have pretty different styles. But it’s great work for us as a defense because, obviously you have to play to those styles. But it builds the communication. Whatever calls, whatever things that we like against one guy, you might not like against the other guy. So, we have to pay attention, no matter who is in the game of communicating that and getting to right call. So that’s been a challenge. It’s something that we’re trying to stay on top of.”
It sounds almost like it’s a little ... stressful? Like it is a challenge for the defense? Like it’d be a real pain in the ass if you were, say, Dolphins head coach Brian Flores and you spent the entire preseason seeing two very different quarterbacks running two very different offensive styles and had to figure out what exactly to focus on in the opener on September 12?
When McCourty finished, I said that the prep sounded taxing. Maybe splitting snaps would be a good idea?
“Yeah, that’s a high-level question,” McCourty laughed. “I see how you tried to ask it. I’m the wrong guy to ask.”
The right guy to ask would be McDaniels. And Chris Gasper from WCVB did that a day later. Gasper began with a question about the different strengths of Jones and Newton.
“I think we've always tried to marry the offense to the personnel on the field,” McDaniels said. Normally, for a long time, we were talking about which tight end was in the game, which receiver was in the game, which halfback was in the game, who was playing left tackle. It's no different with the quarterback.
“If you have a quarterback that his skill set’s a little different than somebody else's, our job is to try to maximize his ability. We all know Cam can move and do things with the ball that there's a lot of guys in the world that can't do. There's things that we’ll have in the offense ready to go for that. Like always, there's gonna be parts of our offense that we won't run with other guys.
"I'm hopeful that we're putting every guy that goes in the huddle and a good position to be successful, which means that there's some things that we don't feel like are really their strengths, we don't do them. Hopefully we're gonna pick the right ones.”
Obviously, consistently throwing overhand passes with tremendous accuracy isn’t a real strength of Newton’s. But for Jones, it is. Gasper asked about splitting reps. McDaniels looked like he’d just smelled bad gas.
“I’ve never done that, really,” he said. “We haven’t even gotten close to that conversation, so I’m not sure about that.”
Would Newton be OK with that approach, Gasper asked.
“I don’t know that, and again, I think the goal is to get all of them, to improve, get close, let them compete and eventually Bill will make a decision on what's the best thing for the team,” McDaniels concluded.
(Aside: Note that McDaniels said “Eventually Bill will make a decision ...” ... The process is ongoing).
For those who think Belichick would never, ever go for this, I direct you to the 2000 season.
In the first meeting, Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis hauled Drew Bledsoe off the field in the fourth quarter on a third-and-7 from the Colts’ 25 and inserted backup Michael Bishop. Bishop, who earlier threw a 44-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Tony Simmons, got dropped for a 6-yard loss and the Patriots had to punt. Even though the Bishop insertion didn’t work, the Patriots held on for the 24-16 upset. And Belichick/Weis weren’t dissuaded.
Two weeks later, Bishop came in three times on third and fourth-down plays. He picked up a fourth-and-1 in the first quarter, got stopped for no gain on a third-and-1 at the Colts’ 9 in the second quarter and picked up a third-and-1 from the Patriots 20 in the fourth quarter.
All due respect to Michael Bishop, who may have had a different career had he come into the league in this century, he is no Cam Newton. Newton is the most accomplished running quarterback in NFL history in terms of carries and rushing touchdowns (70). He’s also thrown 190 touchdowns in his career, won an MVP and -- in the first five years of his career -- was a feared passer.
Even though Newton’s no longer the thrower he was, he isn’t a Bishop-level player. He probably wouldn’t warm to the idea of being shuttled out to be a dual-threat quarterback on the goal line or short yardage. He views himself as a starter and Belichick’s only cemented that status this offseason.
Could Jones fill the Bishop role? Not as a runner but as the change-of-pace thrower who comes in at the start of a series and runs hurry-up for a drive and then yields to Newton?
If any of the other 31 coaches in the league tried something like that and failed, they’d be lampooned. Belichick? He’d take some heat. But there’d also be genuflecting at his resourcefulness.
Interestingly, when Belichick was asked last summer about splitting reps at quarterback, he didn’t rule it out.
“Look, I always say, I do what I think's best for the team, what gives us the best chance to win,” he said. “ So whatever that is I would certainly consider that. If it's running an unbalanced line, double-unbalanced line, or 23 personnel, whatever it is, if it helps us win I would consider anything.”
What could go wrong?