The New England Patriots starting quarterback battle looked and sounded like it was over with two weeks to go before the regular season. Cam Newton had taken nearly all of the first-team snaps in training camp and the first two preseason games. He looked pretty good, too, completing eight of nine passes in the team's last matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles while leading two scoring drives. As recently as yesterday morning Bill Belichick was saying to the press that someone would need to outplay Newton to supersede him, which for Belichick is as good as releasing a depth chart.
Then the news broke: Newton would be sidelined for the entire week, due to COVID protocol. Newton was required to undergo daily testing and accidentally broke the rules while he was traveling and will be virtual for the next four days. A quarterback competition that looked pretty open and shut is suddenly interesting again.
That's right. It's Mac Jones time.
Jones did... not get off to a good start on Monday on his first day running with the starters. He went 1-of-6 to open practice before he steadied himself, but most of his best work came against backups.
This has been more or less the status quo all summer. Jones is right in that middle ground between playing very well against the backups but for the most part struggles against the first-string players, albeit with flashes of brightness like his first drive against the Washington Football Team in the first preseason game. That's about where you'd expect a rookie quarterback to be, especially considering how loaded the Patriots are defensively this year.
But now Jones has the advantage. The best ability is availability, after all, and Newton is lacking in that department right now. It may not be the only time this year this problem comes up considering the former MVP's lengthy injury history and the fact that even the slightest violation of protocol results in multiple days missed for (apparently) unvaccinated players like himself. It makes sense that the Patriots are internally frustrated by this; Newton finally had some momentum and sidelined himself in an entirely avoidable situation.
With all that in mind, Jones doesn't necessarily need to blow the coaching staff away to make this a legit competition again heading into the final weeks of camp. If he proves to Josh McDaniels that he's built upon what he's learned so far and avoids the same mistakes, that'll be enough to keep him in consideration. If he gets hot and excels throughout the week and in combined practices with the Giants, then things will get really interesting. Maybe it's time to jack up those Rookie of the Year odds, with Jones currently at +800 (odds via WynnBet).
This is an opportunity Jones has never really had. He backed up talented signal-callers at Alabama for three years and was never given the chance to rise in the depth chart; his starting chance came when Tua Tagovailoa declared for the draft. He now has the chance to take the job.
Can he do it? We'll see. The Patriots aren't going to force the issue here, no matter how mad they might be at Newton behind the scenes. Jones is the future and Newton's play this summer suggests he would serve as a fine placeholder while the first-round pick watches and learns from the bench.
But as Dan Orlovsky eloquently argued yesterday, there's no reason the future can't start now. Jones just has to prove it. The next few days may very well be the best chance he has to do that until next summer.