Just before 9 a.m. Tuesday, Bill Belichick was asked to characterize the training camp and preseason play of quarterback Cam Newton.
“Definitely moving in the right direction,” Belichick said.
A little more than an hour later, Newton was cut from the New England Patriots, immediately elevating first-round draft pick Mac Jones into a Day 1 starter in Foxborough.
The right direction turned out to be off the team.
Belichick isn't messing around. He never is, of course. There is never a hesitation when it comes to decisions that need to be made. No heart strings. No emotions. No tipping of his hand. “This is professional football,” he likes to say.
Everything, as he often repeats, comes down to doing “what’s best for the team.” In that case, it was going with Jones, who outplayed Newton from the first day of camp through the third preseason game. Not just in totality, but on almost every single day of practice.
That includes the five last week that Newton wasn’t available because he pointlessly put himself on the wrong side of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols by a) not being vaccinated and b) leaving town and taking the wrong kind of tests.
Newton was willing to take on that added hurdle of being unvaxxed — the NFL is more lenient with those who have received their shots. How much it mattered in the final decision is unknown, but sure couldn’t have helped.
If nothing else, Jones got nearly a full week, including a couple of joint practices against the New York Giants, to sear into Belichick’s mind what the team would look like not just with the Alabama rookie as QB1 ... but Newton not even there.
Newton returned to start the third preseason game last week, but it was Jones who got the most reps. Newton played just two series and went 2-of-4 passing. Jones, meanwhile, was in for six drives and went 10-of-14 for 156 yards and a touchdown.
Newton attempted just 21 passes in three preseason games. Jones had 65, and 107 total snaps. Pro Football Focus graded Jones out with a 92.2 rating. Newton was just 79.6.
There was a belief that Belichick was using the preseason to get Jones more work so he’d be ready when his time came. (Plus Newton, as a veteran and former league MVP, didn’t need it.) That wasn’t the case. After all, Belichick never limited Tom Brady’s preseason workload, even as he pushed into his 40s.
The writing was on the wall. A more timid coach, a more conservative coach, might have decided to let Newton start the season, perhaps even play past a Week 4 return visit from Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that should prove to be emotional and intense.
Belichick isn’t that, though. His six Super Bowl rings suggest no one should be. If Jones is ready, then Jones is ready. It’s on him to deal with the pressure and expectations.
And Jones looked ready. Very ready.
The QB draft class of 2021 already looks promising. The top two picks, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, are immediate starters in Jacksonville and with the New York Jets. No. 3 selection Trey Lance is making San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan contemplate a platoon system. And 11th pick Justin Fields will take over in Chicago soon — at least once the coaches there move on from Andy Dalton, who plays the role of Newton in their QB drama.
None of them have looked as good as Jones in this preseason. None walked into as good of a situation or enjoyed the supporting cast or coaching talent around them, of course. Still, Jones, who went 15th, has looked every bit as good, or better, than all of them.
Belichick certainly thinks this is his guy. Newton was signed a year ago on a low-budget contract to serve as the bridge between Brady and whatever the future held. He was a good teammate. He was a good player. It was clear Belichick really liked him, even signing Cam to a $12 million, one-year deal for 2021.
Newton was also aging, with his best days obviously behind him.
If Jones hadn’t distinguished himself, Newton would still be serving as that bridge. Jones won the job though, and Belichick clearly didn’t think Newton would serve best as a backup.
This way, it’s Jones or bust — journeyman Brian Hoyer will be there for only emergency purposes. There is no quarterback controversy.
That’s the plan for New England to try to win a Super Bowl, which is the only goal at a place with so many of them.
It’s Mac Jones or bust.
Sentimentality and caution are not allowed when trying to move in the right direction.