Bill Belichick has coached the New England Patriots for 20 seasons, and during that time, there has never been a real training camp quarterback battle. Drew Bledsoe had the job going into the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Tom Brady had it after that.
Technically the position, like all positions on the Patriots, was open. Reality was different.
Brady is now in Tampa, so don’t blame Belichick if he might enjoy, at least on some level, the concept of a QB derby heading into the season. For once he can say he doesn’t know who the Week 1 starter will be, and everyone has to believe him.
“We’ll give everyone an opportunity, and see what happens,” Belichick said Friday in his first public comments in months.
It’s the kind of quote Belichick lives to give.
Cam Newton is the big name, low pay, free agent arrival. He brings a league MVP and a Super Bowl start on his resume from his time in Carolina. If he’s going to seize the job and show that he can turn the clock back to 2015 (or something like it) then the opportunity is in front of him.
Jarrett Stidham is the second-year man who is said to have impressed the team internally even if his external experience is limited to just four pass attempts as a rookie last year. If he’s going to live up to fan hype/hope that he might be the next Brady (little heralded prospect who will turn into a superstar) then this is his chance.
Meanwhile, Brian Hoyer is the reliable and familiar journeyman, just solid enough that he might be perfect in a preseason that will feature few full-pad practices and no games.
Whatever is going to happen, will happen. Belichick wasn’t giving his expectations away on Friday.
“I think that spot is the same as all the other spots on the team,” Belichick said. “We’ve got a long way to go, and we’ll see how things turn out. I can’t control how players perform. That’s up to them.”
So here we go. Belichick is motivated by winning, first and foremost. But as New England enters camp with a roster that doesn’t scream Super Bowl contender, there is the challenge that Belichick gets to prove himself this year by doing more with less.
Part of that is navigating the new camp process in the run-up to a season that is scheduled to start in early September, but could always change due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of it is dealing with diminished talent, including the loss of Brady, a bunch of defensive starters due to free agency and core players, including linebacker Dont'a Hightower, due to coronavirus opt outs.
“I respect them,” Belichick said of the six Patriots who said they will sit out 2020. “I talked to those guys, and they explained their situations. They had to make the decision that was best for them. I totally respect and support it 100 percent.”
And then part of it has to be trying to figure who the season-opener starter will be at the game’s most important position. Newton is smart enough to know he was never going to be gifted the job. He also is smart enough to know that he’ll have to earn every snap in Foxborough.
Belichick signed Newton on June 28 to a one-year deal with a base salary of just $1.05 million (there are about $6.5 million in incentives). The Patriots are under no obligation to pay him. If Newton hasn’t recovered from injuries or a shell of his former self, then Stidham or Hoyer will win the job.
Belichick never cares. Entering a season that isn’t Super Bowl or bust, he’ll likely care even less. Until late June, after all, he was willing to have just Stidham and Hoyer fight for the job.
Which is one reason he’s glad to have Newton in camp.
“Things worked out,” Belichick said. “We spent quite a bit of time with Cam, and he spent quite a bit of time with us. There was mutual interest. A number of different people and a number of different conversations. We were just trying to see how the fit would be. I know it was very positive on our end, and I’m glad it worked out.”
Now we see how well it works out. Belichick said differing skills — from Stidham and Hoyer as traditional Brady-like, pro-style QBs, to Newton who is more mobile — won’t be an issue in the evaluation. For him, it’s back to the basics.
“You set up a general structure that you implement,” Belichick said. “Everyone needs to learn certain fundamentals, certain basics. And every player — whether he’s played two years, whether he’s played 20 years — there’s still a basic progression to training camp at that player’s position.
“That’s what we’re going to do,” Belichick said. “That’s where we’re going to start. And that’s, in my opinion, what needs to be done, regardless of who the player is or the position he plays.”
Pretty simple. The job is for whoever takes it, with Bill Belichick, who had presumably seen it all, presiding over a real quarterback competition for the first time in New England.
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