For the past two decades, the New England Patriots have been an organization whose philosophy has been predicated on hard work.
Whether it be on offense, defense or special teams, New England is always looking for ways to improve. That reasoning has led to an almost-unprecedented level of recent success for a professional sports franchise.
Following a disappointing 7-9 campaign in 2020, New England’s coaching staff is looking to upgrade. The Pats performed below the franchise standard on both sides of the ball. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is well aware of the need for improvement within his unit.
"Our offense has to play better.” McDaniels told reporters following Wednesday's practice. “I have to coach better. To me, we’re all in the same boat.”
McDaniels’ sentiments only solidify the notion that the need for constant improvement is not only felt by the players on the field. It is just as palpable in the coaches room. Although each phase deserves its share of the blame, he knows that offensive recovery starts with the quarterback position. For McDaniels, making the Patriots more productive on offense means getting better quarterback play from incumbent Cam Newton, and developing rookie Mac Jones.
Unsurprisingly, Newton is looking to rebound from a subpar 2020 season. The 2015 league MVP had his share of struggles in the passing game. Newton finished the year throwing only 8 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. Though he was more productive as a runner, he often looked uncomfortable running the Patriots offense.
With Newton having the benefit of completing a year in New England’s system, combined with a full offseason and preseason to prepare, McDaniels is optimistic that his projected starter is poised for a much better showing in 2021.
“He just knows much more about what we're doing.” McDaniels said of Newton on Wednesday. “It’s a lot less new learning everyday, more repetition of things he already understands. Things slow down. Things make more sense. There were things I was telling him to do last year that he didn’t quite understand, but I was telling him, ‘Hey, do it this way. Try and do it that way.”
The Patriots and McDaniels have a reputation of running a complex offensive system; one that is especially difficult to learn in short order. As such, Newton spent much of the 2020 season learning not only a new playbook, but also McDaniels’ tendencies. Through seven training camp practices in 2021, the pair finally seem to be on the same page.
“Now, he actually understands the ‘why’ on most things. That is really the goal for the quarterbacks. When you’re out there trying to read defenses on a play-to-play basis, if you don’t understand why we’re doing something or why you’re supposed to make the protection slide here or there, it’s a tough position to play. The game has slowed down for him. The offense makes more sense. There is a lot less new learning for him.”
At present, Newton is expected to be the Patriots’ starting quarterback to begin the season. However, it should be noted that the team drafted Mac Jones with the 15th overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Investing valuable draft capital of that type generally signifies that New England has high hopes for their rookie quarterback.
For all of the discussion surrounding the Patriots desire to change their passing game to suit Newton’s skillset, they are still operating under a timing-based system, predicated on vertical routes and completions from quick, accurate throws. While Newton has given the Pats the chance to incorporate more zone reads into their repertoire, the quick-game still seems to be McDaniels’ preference. In that case, Jones would be the likely choice.
Though Jones has made his share of rookie mistakes in the first days of training camp, he has impressed his teammates and coaching staff. Whether it will be enough to eventually unseat Newton as the starter has yet to be determined. However, McDaniels seems to be embracing the differences between his quarterbacks, even viewing those differences as potential strengths. Being able to utilize both Newton’s and Jones’ unique skill sets may give McDaniels and the Patriots a new dimension on offense in 2021.
“I think we've always tried to marry the offense to the personnel on the field," he said. “If you have a quarterback with a bit of a different skill set 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. So it is what it is. There's things that we’ll have in the offense ready to go for that.”
Whether the Patriots choose to accentuate a mobile stable with Newton, or a traditional approach with Jones, McDaniels knows that the execution and the output must be better than it was last season. Should the Pats hope to return to the playoffs, each player needs to be put in the right spot to maximize his ability. On offense, that responsibility lies with McDaniels.
“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 in 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.”
Patriots fans everywhere hope the same, as well.