Rookie QB Mac Jones saw his first action as a pro Thursday night (Photo: New England Patriots)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
Over his first 21 seasons as the reigning God of Football in Foxboro, New England Patriots fans have witnessed Bill Belichick in virtually every circumstance imaginable.
We’ve seen Bill shuffle some pieces into place during his one losing season (2000). We’ve seen Bill lose one franchise QB to injury (2001) and stumble onto the greatest winner in NFL history. We’ve seen Vindictive Bill (Eric Mangini), Evasive Bill (Deflategate), Surly Bill (hello, New England press corps) and, more often than not, the Brilliant Bill who most often is playing chess while assorted pretenders barely pull their chair up to the checkers board.
Yet now, here in the summer of 2021, Pats fans are witnessing a challenge Bill has yet to face in New England. For the first time in two decades, Belichick is weighing a real, live quarterback controversy. It’s a glimpse into how the other half of the NFL, the one that usually never smells the playoffs, lives.
It will be fascinating, interesting, controversial, all of that.
It is the question of the moment, whether you’re strolling the beaches of Narragansett, the Cape Cod shoreline or the rocky Maine coast.
Cam or Mac? Is Cam done? Is Mac the Man?
Get ready New England. If you’re tired of the QB talk, it’s only just begun.
That’s the takeaway lesson from Thursday night’s preseason opener against Washington. In a summer where every practice snap is being voraciously recorded by a panting press corps, this actual, live football competition between two professional teams offered some concrete evidence that a real live Quarterback Battle exists. Of course everyone will try to prognosticate, predict and extrapolate what will happen off this 22-13 Patriots win but it’s time to settle down.
Nothing was decided Thursday in Foxboro. But one thing was confirmed: Bill has a quarterback problem.
First off, let’s look at just how the coaching staff handled the position. Newton, the 32-year old, 11-year veteran, started the game. He then played the first two series, led his team to one Quinn Nordin field goal and connected on 4-of-7 passes for 49 yards. None of the passes could be described as `downfield.’
Newton then retreated to the Patriots bench, where he acted as a true professional and vociferous cheerleader.
For the uninitiated, those are starters minutes in NFL quarterbacking circles. That’s what Bill and Josh McDaniels used to do with Tom Brady.
When it was time for Mac Jones to replace Cam at the end of the first quarter, many of the fans at Gillette rose to their feet and cheered loudly before the kid had even taken a snap. Jones settled in nicely, hutting Kristian Wilkerson and Kendrick Bourne on nice throws.
The crowd could barely contain itself when Jones took a shot downfield, lofting a nice pass that Wilkerson could not corral.
Jones led the Pats on a 10-play drive that ended with an impressive 50-yard missile by Nordin for another field goal and a 6-0 lead. Jones finished up the first half in two more series that yielded no points. He then came out for more in the third quarter. That’s actually when he was at his best.
After not seeing an opportunity in the second frame, Belichick and McDaniels tasked the rookie with rolling through a 2-minute drill. In a no-huddle set and surrounded by backups, Jones maneuvered the Pats through the Washington defense in a 13-play drive that ultimately stalled at the 22 yard line and ended with a 40-yard field goal by Nordin (who is easily the best story of this Training Camp!).
There were two more nondescript Jones series, but the box was checked. Now we know, or at least we think we know. The Kid can play. He can move an offense, he can make the simple passes, run a team, compete at this level.
That was what Thursday was about. Could Mac Jones take the promise he’s shown as an Alabama Super Stud and a competent training camp guy and turn that into production in the NFL?
That was what Thursday was about. Not who will start in Week One vs. Miami or just when Newton will be replaced by Jones. That all remains to be seen.
That leads us back to Belichick. You can quietly juggle a competition at running back or cornerback through the August heat but this is quarterback. Cam Newton will undoubtedly be the starter come Sept. 12, barring a disaster of some sort. But Mac is waiting in the wings.
“In general we need to play faster and react faster,” Belichick said. “Things happen at game speed. That’s something that everyone needs to improve on, certainly the quarterback position but every other position too. We haven’t had the live game exposure until (Thursday), so we have to match that speed.”
That’s a `good problem’ to have for any coach. Two solutions are better than one, right? But what if Mac Jones becomes the people’s choice, if he’s not already? What if the Pats lose the opener to the Dolphins?
Panic will set in around New England, howls of `We Want Mac’ will descend on The God of Football.
It will be a fascinating watch.