After he lit up the New York Giants in a dual practice Wednesday, New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones came to the sideline, and as he was catching his breath, coach Bill Belichick came over and congratulated him for what he’d just done.
That snapshot suggests Belichick has been very pleased with Jones and that the New England Patriots are about to anoint their rookie first-round pick as their starter.
Masterful, in this case, is defined in the area of 35 of 45, including 18 consecutive completions against the Giants’ first-team defense at one point. Oh, yes, Jones threw a couple or three touchdowns — including one in a two-minute drill that you’ll soon read is a big deal to Belichick.
So it sounds like this competition is over because Mac Jones threw a knockout punch in one practice.
Except it’s not over.
Not quite yet.
Cam Newton gets a chance to respond on Thursday. He’s earned that during his decade in the NFL, including those 15 starts with the Patriots last year.
So when he returns to practice, which he’s scheduled to do Thursday after missing the last five days because of the NFL’s whack COVID protocols, he’ll get his chance at the Giants’ defense and a fair shot to earn Belichick’s notice as well.
This could be the most meaningful practice for Newton in a very long time.
Because right now Newton has the feel of a latter-day Wally Pipp (google it, whippersnappers), and he needs to respond to make sure Jones isn’t the next Lou Gehrig.
There will be a lot of eyes on what Newton does next because it’s the Patriots and much of the NFL east of the Mississippi is watching — mostly because multiple teams east of the Mississippi hate the Patriots and want to beat their butts.
So I reached out to some of those NFL folks who have been monitoring this Patriots quarterback competition, and I asked them what’s going to decide the thing.
These are some of my notes from those conversations:
Everyone will go right to preseason games to figure out who should be the starter. That’s a bad idea. It’s not merely about that.
The Patriots are in a unique position in that just about everything you’ve seen from Jones has been positive. But do not dismiss the fact Newton has been good, too.
It’s going to be about how both guys acquire and recall information.
The Patriots do not want to be held back by any one position. They don’t want to have to eliminate, say, five things from the offense because a certain guy is in the lineup. If they have to do that for a guy, he’s probably not going to be the starter.
It’s going to come down to the details of what’s going on in-house.
The tough part about all that is no one outside the coaching staff knows how that in-house stuff is going behind closed doors.
But that’s not all.
Belichick is a stickler about situational football, I’m told. So he’s going to ask himself these questions:
- Which quarterback is best suited to maintain a good turnover margin?
- Which quarterback is scoring touchdowns in the red zone?
- Which is more productive on third down?
- And which is more productive in two-minute drives.
In short, the decision is as much about finding the best situational quarterback as it is about deciding which guy has the better statistics.
People on teams outside New England understand Jones is passing the test.
But because he’s a rookie, Belichick must consider other factors before he makes the final decision about who starts the Sept. 12 opener in Foxborough, Mass., against the Miami Dolphins.
Belichick understands that once he goes with Jones — and he probably will at some point this season — it will be difficult to pull him out. That would create insecurity in the rookie’s mind that most coaches don’t want their young quarterback to deal with.
The easier decision is undoubtedly to go with the veteran to start the season and then insert the rookie if that doesn’t go well.
But if Belichick is convinced Jones is the right guy, he will undoubtedly know that the opener could present a problem.
NFL people see the Dolphins as an incomplete team. (Sorry, Dolphins fans.) But the Patriots’ quarterback is going to be staring into the teeth of Miami’s most complete unit — the defense, which was top five in scoring last season.
If Jones is the New England starter, it’s understood former Patriots defensive signal-caller and Dolphins coach Brian Flores is going to go after him with every blitz imaginable until Jones finds a way to beat him.
That is not a question. It would be a baptism by blitz.
One NFL source added this: The first weeks of the NFL season are unpredictable. Crazy things happen. When you have experienced guys in there, you minimize the chances the craziness will beat you.
So maybe Belichick does indeed pick Mac Jones to start. But the decision isn’t as easy as Jones made it seem in practice Wednesday.