While there was a bit of a rush to paint Tuesday’s news of the Patriots’ releasing Cam Newton as either some kind of non-vaccination revenge or general evidence of Belichickian cold heartedness, there exists another scenario that might be worth exploring.
For starters, Mac Jones outplayed Cam Newton this preseason. Jones, depending on who you ask, outplayed almost all rookie quarterbacks this preseason. The ball was out on time. He looked comfortable in the pocket. He nestled snugly into an offense that asks him to perform the kind of unsexy, mechanical tasks that he does particularly well. If you followed the diligent work of the New England football beat, you saw Jones begin to accumulate a larger share of the reps, which is another tell that Belichick’s mind was close to made up. He is a coach who crafted a legend not out of being evil, but out of being open to running a meritocracy.
Also, Belichick likely has a great appreciation for Newton still. That’s why you would cut a guy soon after your mind is made up and not keep him buried on a depth chart. Many have asked why the Patriots wouldn’t just keep Newton because he’s a better quarterback than Brian Hoyer. That point is undebatable. But over the course of a year, Belichick probably got to know Newton well enough, and appreciate him enough as a competitor, to know that it wouldn’t be an ideal situation to put Newton or Jones in. He doesn’t want Jones looking over his shoulder. He doesn’t want Newton, who invigorated a locker room reeling from the loss of Tom Brady, forced to tuck in his feathers and assume the role of a subservient cheerleader.
It’s rarely painted this way, but there are times the Patriots can take into consideration a bit of humanity, and we might want to think of this situation as one of them. Underlying it all, of course, is the reality that Jones came on a little bit faster than expected. The way Belichick drafted and attacked free agency this offseason, it was clear he was building an offense that could either bolster a rookie quarterback or convert neatly into the kind of powerful, downhill rushing offense that would best suit Newton.
So when Jones flashed, Belichick had to think about Jones the way he did a young Brady. How long do you want someone larger than life (in Brady’s case, Drew Bledsoe; in Jones’s case, a former league MVP who showed last year that he can melt the attendees of a press conference or the heart of his supposed Grinch head coach) sitting there watching the developing rookie’s every move.
How long do you want someone who you probably genuinely appreciate—Newton waltzed his way through a stubborn Boston town struggling to get over the loss of their folk hero—to ride the bench, when he could be squeezing what’s left of his athletic prime elsewhere?
Newton’s status as an unvaccinated player obviously complicates matters. It must have caused some momentary frustration, as reports of a “door opening” for Jones surfaced soon after the news that Newton would have to miss practices. But Newton is not alone—not even close—among the fraternity of NFL quarterbacks, or even elite NFL players, who have made the decision not to vaccinate. If there was a concern that this issue would roil the locker room, then it is an active concern of nearly every NFL general manager and coach in the league. This argument can, and will, exist everywhere.
There is a good chance Newton will land somewhere quickly. Quarterback depth charts around the NFL are an utter mess and he’ll get the chance to play some meaningful snaps in 2021. His former head coach, Ron Rivera, would be wise to feel Newton out. The Dolphins, Bengals, Texans, Panthers, Colts and Broncos could all use an upgrade at their backup spot, competition for their starter or a little bit of both. He will factor into the story of the 2021 season somewhere, somehow.
Unless, of course, he remained in New England, where Newton would only have been a factor in terms of how he looked every time Jones threw a touchdown pass or struggled. That wasn’t going to work for either player involved.
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