By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bill Belichick isn’t always known for being completely forthright when speaking to the media. When given the option of keeping matters private or blasting them into a microphone, there’s not often much internal debate taking place inside the mind of the Hall of Fame coach.READ MORE: The List Of Six Rookie Quarterbacks Who Have Beaten Bill Belichick's Patriots Is Insane
Yet last week, when asked directly what it would take for a rookie — like, say, Michael McCorkle Jones — to overtake a veteran QB — take Cam Newton, for example — as the team’s starting quarterback, Belichick was about as honest and succinct as humanly possible.
“Somebody would have to play better than him,” Belichick said.
Since then, Belichick has opted to stay quiet when asked for specifics on the quarterback competition. But on Tuesday morning, the world got its answer.
Mac Jones played better than Cam Newton. And Mac Jones is now the Patriots’ starting quarterback.
That news was delivered when the team released Newton, a cutdown that few — if any — saw coming. Not after Newton started all three preseason games, and not after Newton slid right back in with the first reps at practice after his mandated COVID absence.
While most spectators recognized that Jones’ arm and brain appeared to be NFL-ready, the actions of Belichick spoke louder than any words could. After remaining loyal to Newton throughout the entire 2020 season, it appeared as though the head coach was rolling into 2021 with No. 1 under center.
Yet what typically happens when people think they know anything about Bill Belichick is that those folks end up looking foolish. So anyone who wrote stories on Sunday night saying that it looked like Newton was the starting quarterback? Those people look foolish.
And now, there is no doubt: The Patriots are Mac Jones’ team.
Veteran Brian Hoyer remains the consummate professional, and he’s embraced his role as a mentor and part-coach for the rookie all year long. That figures to continue into the season.
There is, of course, some risk involved. Jones was the fifth quarterback taken in this year’s draft, despite his undefeated, national championship season last year at Alabama, when he set an all-time NCAA record for completion percentage at 77.4 percent. Despite throwing 41 touchdowns and four interceptions with 4,500 passing yards in 13 games, Jones’ athleticism was a major question for the four QB-needy teams who picked ahead of the Patriots. And so, Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields were drafted ahead of him.
Since then, Jones has displayed a tremendous arm, a tremendous work ethic, and a tremendous football IQ. It’s impressed everyone, from his teammates to his coaches to former Patriots like Julian Edelman and Rodney Harrison. He completed 69.2 percent of his preseason passes, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt while throwing one touchdown and no interceptions. He could have had another 100 yards and two more touchdowns if not for some key drops.READ MORE: Trent Brown Returns To Practice, But Kyle Van Noy Absent Again Friday
Throw in the way that Jones shined during Newton’s COVID protocol-mandated absence, and it’s easy to see why the Patriots were impressed by the rookie.
Now, he’ll have the opportunity to prove it to everyone else.
The risk would be in the physical aspect of the NFL. Jones has barely been hit thus far, and he’s already begun to wear a knee brace. If some of the physical concerns that led to him being the fifth quarterback taken end up costing him some time during the season, the Patriots won’t have Newton to step in and help the team win some games. (Hoyer started the team’s Week 4 game in Kansas City last year when Newton had COVID, but he was benched at halftime for taking a sack that cost the Patriots a field goal attempt. He was inactive for the rest of the season.)
That is, however, a risk the Patriots are willing to take. Either out of respect for Newton or fear that he wouldn’t make the best backup, Belichick opted to cut him loose. Newton may not get another chance to start in the NFL, but the Patriots are at least keeping that possibility open for him elsewhere.
And so, the 2021 Patriots are Mac Jones’ team. When the season begins in less than two weeks. No. 10 will be under center. When Tom Brady returns to Foxboro for the most-anticipated regular-season game in Patriots history, Mac Jones will be his counterpart. And if — or when, depending on your optimism level — the Patriots rack up wins and march back to the postseason, it will have to be Mac Jones leading the charge.
When the Patriots went on a spending spree in free agency, adding tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry as well as wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, it appeared as though they were building a viable offense for Newton. After the former MVP worked in an undermanned offense a year ago, it looked like Belichick and Josh McDaniels were building an offense where Newton could actually thrive.
That seemed to be the case. But in Belichick’s and McDaniels’ eyes, Jones was too good to deny. And there was no reason to wait around.
Now there is no mistaking it. The temporary fill-in who began the post-Brady era is gone. The successor to Tom Brady is here. He’ll be starting games as soon as possible, and he’ll be facing the greatest QB of all time within a month of his NFL debut.
In addition to liking his game, the Patriots clearly trust that Jones is capable of standing up to that kind of pressure.
And unlike our expectations as recently as Tuesday morning, we’ll get to see exactly how Jones responds to it all right out of the chute.
The Patriots’ season begins Sept. 12, at 4:15 p.m., against the Miami Dolphins. Starting then, and rolling through January, it will be all eyes on Mac Jones, all the time.MORE NEWS: Matt Judon Explains What He Means When He Says Patriots Let Him Be Matt Judon