As Patriots training camp opens, there are a number of positional battles and storylines to watch, but the one that will likely receive the most attention is the QB position. For more than a decade it was the least contested position on the field in New England, but now that the Pats have spent high draft capital on their guy Mac Jones and re-signed Cam Newton, the path for 2021 is less clear. When will we see the young 1st round pick under center? Does Bill Belichick have it in him to start Mac Jones week 1 if he significantly outperforms Cam Newton in training camp?
It’s always hard to judge exactly how good players truly look in training camp. Each day there will be lots of reports talking about how player X is looking stronger and quicker and player Y has been lifting in the offseason. My favorite are when a reporter picks a seemingly random player and hypes him up on the off chance he has a breakout year, then the player doesn’t make the roster or get any reps. To be fair, it can be hard to predict some of the decisions that Belichick and his staff make, which is why we’re left wondering about the real plan for Mac Jones.
I think we’ll see pretty quickly, if we haven’t already, that Mac Jones has a stronger and more accurate arm than Cam. The bar is set fairly low with Cam’s arm strength looking pretty awful at times last season, but it’s worth noting. I know the receiving core didn’t do Cam any favors in 2020, but a 7.2 yds/pass average put him near the bottom of the league. However, Cam did have a higher completion rate than Tom Brady in 2020 (by 0.001%) albeit with 159 fewer completions on 242 fewer attempts. Another gap between the two QBs is around playbook and awareness.
When it comes to the Pats playbook, an extra season under your belt vs being new in town can be a cavernous divide, whether real or just in Belichick’s head. I’m not saying Cam had an amazing grasp of the offense and knew exactly what to do on every play last year, but his legs made up for the moments when he was lost and he studied and practiced each week. Mac Jones isn’t slow, but he certainly isn’t a running back either, and having just a few months to learn and digest the system is tough. Until Belichick feels Mac has a really strong grasp on the playbook and a bit more awareness of situations on the field, he’s going to be very hesitant to start him, like we’ve seen with some other young QBs in the recent past (i.e. Jared Stidham).
Besides a grasp of the playbook, there is also the sense of loyalty that for some reason Belichick has with Cam. Bill seems to love Cam like a son and has been willing to give him a pretty long leash up until this point. I’m not sure if that’s partially a product of his distrust in Stidham or his true love for Cam. This year will certainly test that theory, because there is now a legitimate contender on the bench behind Cam who can probably step in and win some games even before he’s really “ready”. If Mac outduels Cam in training camp, it’ll push Belichick to make a tough decision (or at least it should).
Another factor in the decision revolves around the schedule. Overall, it’s not the hardest schedule the Pats have had, which is helpful, but there aren’t any stretches of several games playing bad teams to easy Mac in. It seems to be a tougher game followed by an easier game for the majority of the season making it difficult to see an obvious run of games to hand Mac the reigns if not on week 1.
My ideal scenario is that Mac crushes in training camp and Belichick has no choice but to hand him the ball week 1. If they believe he is the future, start the path now knowing that there will be bumps and bruises along the way. He’s not going to take this team deep in the playoffs for a year or two, but neither is Cam, at least Mac’s playing time would be building toward the future. Give him a decent leash knowing that the veteran Cam is there to guide him through and step if things really go off the rails. I think realistically, Belichick will wait to start Mac until 1. Cam is completely incompetent and he has no choice; 2. Cam gets injured; or 3. They are out of the playoff hunt post the week-14 bye.