Curran: For Patriots, it's not Cam vs. Mac; it's Mac vs. Mac


After Thursday night we’ll be two-thirds through the Patriots preseason. Meanwhile, the masses huff impatiently that Bill Belichick won’t just get it over with and go with the kid.

I understand the sentiment.

I’ve seen grandmothers pick out a dozen donuts in less time than it takes Cam Newton to choose a receiver. Complementing Newton’s lack of decisiveness is a lack of consistent, NFL-level accuracy and touch. We all know this. We all see it. You can’t run an offense in 2021 knowing that every fifth throw your quarterback makes might hit the wall instead of the dartboard.

Newton’s a great guy. He’s done all they’ve asked. He was actually a godsend in 2020 when the Patriots had no tight ends and had to hitch their pass-catching hopes to the still-developing Jakobi Meyers. He could play bully-ball until the game got out of reach and then he’d have to take a seat. Three times that happened.

That was then. This is now. There are tight ends now. There are better receivers now. In an offense where timing, precision and accuracy are the coin of the realm, Newton is completely obsolete.  

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We’ve watched more than 15 training camp practices. Padded, unpadded, joint, competitive, half-speed, you name it. Every kind of practice, every kind of rep.

Newton significantly outperformed Jones as a passer for a whole practice once. One time. That was during the first padded practice when the quarterbacks barely threw competitively. And Jones followed that up with two lights-out days of work.

Jones has his bad reps and "meh" sessions. But he hasn’t blinked in the face of the competition with the larger-than-life Newton. Or with the pressure of having the greatest coach of all time scrutinizing him. Or under the demands of being the offensive taskmaster to receivers that mess up.

He has command before the snap. He’s quick to make his reads after the snap. The ball is delivered with touch and accuracy. And he’s played plenty with the starting offensive line and top receivers in the first three weeks of camp. He’s not holding anyone back.

Is he perfect? Hardly.

Jones hasn’t shown high-level velocity that allows him to rip comebacks to the sideline without having to worry they’ll get slapped down or -- worse -- occasionally picked off. Don’t think it’s there. It may not arrive this year. Over time, he’ll throw harder. Guaranteed. But he has to get stronger from head to toe.

That’s not even close to a deal-breaker, though. Jones’ anticipation and ball placement easily counterbalance his average velocity.

The bigger concern the Patriots seem to have is that he hasn’t peed a drop as a professional. Will he turn into a puddle or go in the tank if he goes three-and-out, three-and-out, pick-six, strip-sack fumble to start his career against the Miami Dolphins on September 12? And if he does, what then?

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Former Patriots executive and current NFL analyst Mike Lombardi had this to say on his GM Shuffle Podcast after watching the Patriots practice in Philly this week.

“If you’re Belichick, do you put Mac in to start the season? And then if Mac struggles and doesn’t look good, are you gonna bench him and then how will you get him back again? How do you renew his confidence? You’re better off being patient. You’re better off letting the crops in the field grow. You’re better off letting it have a little more time to sink its roots.”

Whether this is an opinion of Lombardi’s that’s informed by conversations with Belichick and others in the organization (Lombardi’s son, Mick, is the Patriots wide receivers coach) or simply how he sees it, I can’t pretend to know.

But it’s obvious that the quarterback competition right now isn’t Cam vs. Mac as much as it is Mac vs. Mac. It’s been clear since minicamp that Jones is being fast-tracked. And he’s responded throughout to the pressure. He certainly isn’t being sheltered and protected. But the concern and the conundrum is setting the kid back by asking too much, too soon.

The Patriots take the early developmental process very seriously. Look at the running back position. Shane Vereen, James White and Damien Harris all had redshirt rookie years. Tom Brady got to spend a year developing behind Drew Bledsoe. Jimmy Garoppolo got two seasons of seasoning behind Brady. There are plenty of Patriots who started right away, sure. But quarterback is different and we’re all aware of that.

For a variety of reasons, the Patriots view the first month of the season as an extension of training camp. Of course, they are working their asses off to win games but they approach September with a “Let’s see how it goes and if it’s not working, we’ll adjust …” mentality. With the number of new receivers in the mix, the early-season adjustment could take even longer this year.

You could argue it would be better to have Jones out there at the start so he can take his lumps and learn with everyone else. That way, they’re all on the same learning curve and the team isn’t having to adjust to Jones’ growing pains in October or November. Shallow roots be damned. And maybe that’s how it goes.

The thing is, despite our impatience, there still is no rush. There are still two preseason games to play. There are two more days of joint practices with the Giants. There’s an empty week after the last preseason game on August 29 where the Patriots can figure it out before the game week starts on September 5.

The Patriots know what they have in Newton. But there’s a lot of intel on Jones still to be gathered between now and then. If he shows he’s not scared, the Patriots don’t need to be either.

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