It's on Cam Newton to prove he didn't just gift-wrap the Patriots' QB job to Mac Jones

Mac Jones is coming for Cam Newton’s job. That isn’t a secret. Newton is the aging veteran on a one-year contract in New England, a bridge from Tom Brady to the future. Jones is that future, the 15th overall draft pick following a national title run at Alabama.

At some point it’s Jones’ job. It’s up to Newton to decide whether that is Week 1 of this season, Week 5 (after Brady visits in what will be a hyped, emotional game), next year or even longer.

So far this preseason, especially after going 8-of-9 for 103 yards with a touchdown against Philadelphia last week, Newton has done enough to hold onto the top spot on the depth chart.

“The fact [that] Cam started last year and he’s here, somebody is going to have to play better than him," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week. "We’re not going to take a job and say, ‘OK, here, this is gift-wrapped for somebody.’”

What if Newton did the gift-wrapping?

Wednesday represented the fifth day that Newton missed in-person workouts due to a violation of NFL COVID-19 protocols. That meant Jones was able to take all the snaps this week and get all of the important time in Wednesday’s joint practice with the New York Giants.

It was there that Jones was reportedly excellent, completing 35 of 40 passes per Jeff Howe of the Athletic. He was 21-of-24 in 11-on-11 play, per Phil Perry of NBC Sports Boston. There were multiple touchdowns, including a 50-yarder in double coverage to Jakobi Meyers. At one point Jones completed 18 consecutive passes.

Cam Newton's COVID testing mishap has handed rookie Mac Jones a significant opportunity, and so far Jones is running with it. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Cam Newton's COVID testing mishap has handed rookie Mac Jones a significant opportunity, and so far Jones is running with it. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Yes, it was one practice. Yes, it was against the Giants. No, there isn’t a need to write a Hall of Fame speech yet. But given the chance to practice in the starter's slot, Jones looked like a starter. He certainly wasn't shrinking in the moment.

As for Cam, if you are trying to keep a job in any profession, missing work isn’t the best way to do it. “Availability” is a core value of the league.

Is this a great opportunity for Jones, coach Bill Belichick was asked earlier in the week?

“It is,” Belichick said.

Suddenly, the entire Patriots quarterback derby might be in an unexpected state of flux. If nothing else, a question that seemed decided a week ago — Newton is the Patriots' starting quarterback — now is at least being revisited.

Could Mac Jones immediately take over?

“Training camp is all about competition,” Belichick said. “There’s an element of who the starter is, but there’s also the competition, and in the end the competition is going to decide how things go in any given year.”

Jones was very good against the Eagles in the second preseason game. He went 13-of-19 for 146 yards and at least three of those incompletions could be classified as drops. Most impressively, he began to show a measure of arm strength that not everyone expected.

Growing more comfortable in the NFL, he began stepping into passes, including threading balls through the secondary and nearly connecting with N’Keal Harry on a deep route.

The reason Newton was still the presumed starter was because Cam was playing well also and his running ability adds a dimension to the offense. Simply put, if there was no reason to start a rookie, you don’t start a rookie.

This week, Newton didn’t play and the reason was self-inflicted. The Patriots dubbed it a “misunderstanding” because Newton briefly left town with their approval and took the wrong type of COVID test, but the result is the same.

You can rail about the NFL’s COVID protocols, but they are the NFL’s COVID protocols. Compliance is the only option.

Jones is on the field and apparently elevating his play with nearly every rep. Newton is participating “remotely” and when he returns, well, it may not be Lou Gehrig and Wally Pipp, but the dynamics may have changed.

Beyond his solid play, one salvation for Newton may be the Patriots' game Oct. 3 in Foxborough against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That marks the return to Gillette Stadium for Brady. The game will be overwrought with nostalgia, mixed emotions and fans unsure exactly who to cheer. In the end it will be the Pats, but Brady is still the hero who delivered six Super Bowls.

Just looking at New England’s quarterback situation and the schedule it always seemed to make sense to keep the veteran Newton in the starting spot until at least the Bucs game. Why throw a rookie — any rookie — in against that defense and under that stress with the legend capable of lighting his old home up again?

A lot of bad things can happen to a guy’s confidence in that situation.

The thing Belichick always says is that every decision is based on the best interest of the team. If he thinks Jones gives the Patriots the best chance to win, then Jones is going to play. Protecting anyone’s feelings or psyche isn’t a major concern.

“This is a new opportunity and each one of us has to establish our level of performance this year,” Belichick said.

Seems like Mac Jones is establishing his level of performance. It’s now up to Cam, starting when he gets back Thursday, to respond. Otherwise the inevitable might become the immediate up in Foxborough.