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The New England Patriots were going to be Mac Jones’s team eventually. Everybody who watched the rookie quarterback play this preseason and push incumbent starter Cam Newton at every turn saw that.
Coach Bill Belichick obviously saw it, too. But from his perspective it was better not to wait for “eventually” to come around. So he simply ripped the band aid off the scab.
Belichick released Newton on Tuesday.
Mac Jones is the Patriots’ new starting quarterback.
And at first blush, this move seems like typical Belichick skullduggery. He head fakes one way and goes the other.
He said at the start of training camp that Newton “is our starter.” And at every practice Newton was present, he worked with the team’s first-team offense. Newton was also the starter in all three preseason games.
And even as Newton played well and Jones played perhaps a little better, Belichick never gave the nod to one or the other — until the moment he turned his offense over to his first-round rookie quarterback.
But what people simply cannot comprehend is that this move is just Belichick being Belichick. He saw a better performance from one player over another, and disregarding vaccinations, experience and locker room status, the coach went with the better performer.
He did that in 2001 when relative unknown Tom Brady continued to play ahead of a recovered veteran Drew Bledsoe. Why? Because Brady was playing well, and the team was winning more with him than it had with Bledsoe.
Well this preseason, Jones was better than Newton. That simple.
Newton was good. But Jones was better.
These are the results Jones put on tape this preseason:
— In the first game, he led three drives, two for touchdowns and another for a field goal.
— In the second game, he led three drives, all three for touchdowns.
— In the third game, he led two drives, both for field goals.
The Patriots scored five touchdowns and three field goals on eight Mac Jones drives this preseason.
Jones had a 92.2 grade from ProFootballFocus.com this summer. That was the highest grade of any QB with a minimum 40 dropbacks this preseason.
That was also the highest preseason QB grade for a rookie PFF has ever given — even higher than the 91.8 Patrick Mahomes got in 2017.
Results matter to Bill Belichick.
Fine, so why wouldn’t Belichick keep Newton as the backup instead of defaulting to Brian Hoyer, who is a solid backup but nonetheless an inferior player to Newton?
First, it’s not known right now whether Newton requested his release so he could possibly start elsewhere — maybe in Washington for his former coach Ron Rivera.
Secondly, neither Newton’s command of the locker room nor his vaccination status can be dismissed. Newton is an unimpeachable leader, and players in that New England locker room see him as such. Having him as a backup seems nice in a vacuum, but it would cast a shadow over Jones.
And though Newton is unvaccinated, the hard truth of the NFL COVID protocols is that vaccinated players are forced to meet more stringent guidelines to remain available week to week.
Don’t feel sorry for Newton.
“I really appreciate all the love and support during this time but I must say … Please don’t feel sorry for me. #Imgood,” Newton posted on Instagram.
So what does this all mean going into the regular-season opener against Miami at New England on Sept. 12?
Well, it’ll be Mac Jones vs. Tua Tagovailoa.
And please forget the build-up about the last two national championship winning quarterbacks from Alabama facing off. Yeah, that’s fun hype stuff. But it’s not real.
What these guys accomplished at Alabama won’t factor in this game. What matters is the Patriots will be facing Tagovailoa, a quarterback they believe they can rattle and chase with their pass rush and disguised coverages. And the Dolphins will be facing Jones, a quarterback they believe they can rattle and chase with their pass rush and disguised coverages.
Neither coach will admit to that, of course.
“I have a great deal of respect for him,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said of Jones on Tuesday. “If he’s earned the respect of Bill Belichick and (New England offensive coordinator) Josh McDaniels, he has my respect.
“But this is not the Dolphins against Mac Jones; this is the Dolphins against the Patriots. They have a lot of good players and a lot of good coaches over there. But with respect to Mac Jones, he’s a good young talent and we’ll have a hands full with him.”
This matchup will obviously be about which quarterback gets the most help from his defense. And his offensive line. And his running game.
And which quarterback avoids passes to Miami’s Xavien Howard and New England’s J.C. Jackson — the NFL’s top two interceptions leaders in 2020.