Why the Patriots Might Deploy a Cam Newton, Mac Jones Platoon This Season

Alex KayContributor IAugust 24, 2021

Foxborough, MA - July 28: Quarterbacks Cam Newton, left, and Mac Jones during drills. The New England Patriots hold Day 1 of training camp at the Gillette Stadium practice field in Foxborough, MA on July 29, 2021. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Boston Globe/Getty Images

The New England Patriots' quarterback controversy took another twist Monday morning after it was revealed that Cam Newton will be away from the team until Thursday. The club announced that there was a "misunderstanding" about the daily COVID-19 tests the incumbent starter received while away from NFL facilities.

With Newton only able to participate in team activities virtually for much of the week, there is now a real opportunity for Mac Jones to carve out a bigger role to start the 2021 season.

The rookie signal-caller has played exceedingly well during training camp and in the preseason, but he has taken most of his snaps with the second-stringers in practice, per Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald, and came in after Newton during both of New England's preseason games.

During his weekly appearance on The Greg Hill Show (h/t Audacy.com), head coach Bill Belichick indicated that Newton is still penciled in as the starter, but that status—like any other position on his roster—is subject to change based on skill and/or availability.

Jones' promising production could lead New England's notoriously creative coach to find an unconventional solution to this quarterback conundrum.

When asked if would consider playing both Newton and Jones this season, Belichick said that he hasn't ruled out a quarterback-by-committee approach and made it clear that he is open to anything that will help the Patriots win football games:

“I am going to do what is best for the team. I am going to do whatever I can to help the team win. So, if that’s playing a guard in the backfield, then we’ll play a guard in the backfield. If it's putting 10 defensive backs on the field, if that's what it is, maybe we'll put 10 defensive backs on the field. I am not going to rule out anything. If I think something would help us win, I would consider it."

Belichick has a tough decision after his top two quarterbacks dominated in Thursday's preseason contest. Newton carved up the Philadelphia Eagles for 103 yards and a score on 8-of-9 passing before exiting the game. Jones didn’t skip a beat, connecting on 13 of 19 passes for 146 yards.

Because neither quarterback has distinguished himself as a significantly better starting option, it might be easiest for Belichick to simply give both playing time during the regular season.

If the Patriots do decide to go with a platoon for an extended stretch, it would be the first time a team has done so since Washington head coach George Allen rotated in Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen during the 1973 and 1974 seasons.

One would have to go back more than seven decades to find the league's most—and perhaps only—successful platoon. The Los Angeles Rams began using Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin together in 1949 and reached the NFL title game for three consecutive years, winning in 1951. The two would continue to share playing time until Waterfield's retirement in 1952.

In recent years, teams have occasionally rotated in a more athletic backup quarterback for specific situations, such as being near the goal line or for gadget plays.

The New Orleans Saints are a good example of this, having swapped Drew Brees for Taysom Hill to keep opposing defenses off balance and add the threat of a runner under center, but they never employed a full-time platoon at the position.

Belichick, a devout student of the game, has shown a propensity to utilize strategies by his predecessors.

Former New England linebacker Rosevelt Colvin revealed to ESPN's Mike Reiss that Belichick named his two tight end sets—which were close to unstoppable in 2011—the "Detroit" offense because the Lions ran that system when he coached there.

Ryan Wendell, another of Belichick's former players, said the coach showed his players a black-and-white film from the 1940s to demonstrate what the modern Green Bay Packers were doing offensively and how historic defenses would try to stop them.

In 2019, the six-time Super Bowl winner spoke positively about the opportunity he had to pore through the film archives while working on the NFL's Top 100 project.

"I learned a lot. It was a great experience," he said, per Matt Vautour of MassLive.com. "I watched a lot of film of players in the '30s, the '40s, the '50s and the '60s. I watched quite a bit of that over the summer and last spring, and it was very enlightening in studying the great players in different eras and how the game was played."

While the game has changed immensely in the years since Waterfield and Van Brocklin were wearing leather helmets, taking a page out of the history books could pay dividends for New England this season.

Like a fantasy football manager, Belichick could play the matchups when determining which quarterback to start. Newton would be an ideal option against poor rushing defenses or foes more susceptible to mobile quarterbacks, while Jones could be deployed when the Pats are going up against weak secondaries.  

It's even possible that New England will opt to change out its quarterbacks in the middle of a game.

Last year, there were numerous times when Newton was struggling to make throws and lead the offense. Having Jones come off the pine to jump-start a slumping offense would allow the Patriots to break out of those ruts.

Had the Crimson Tide product been on the roster last year, Belichick might have pulled Newton earlier than he did in situations like his three-interception performance against the San Francisco 49ers. He could have turned to a backup much more capable than Jarrett Stidham in an attempt to salvage a victory. 

If New England elected to start Jones that week but finds him flummoxed by a certain defense, Belichick could call Newton in to spell the 15th overall pick in hopes of solving that opponent. 

The rival Miami Dolphins avoided an outright platoon situation last year, but their eventual switch from Ryan Fitzpatrick to rookie Tua Tagovailoa wasn't permanent. Although Fitzpatrick lost his starting job in Week 8, he still found himself back on the field bailing out the 'Phins on multiple occasions.

The veteran played a relief-pitcher-type role for Miami, completing 45-of-70 passes for 556 yards and three touchdowns in the three games that he subbed in for Tagovailoa, per Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports.

The move worked best in Week 16, when Fitzpatrick entered a game against the Las Vegas Raiders with less than 10 minutes remaining. The dependable veteran kept Miami in postseason contention after sparking a lifeless offense and orchestrating a brilliant game-winning drive. 

Assuming Newton is cleared to return on schedule, the Patriots will get their first real opportunity to try out a quarterback by committee on Sunday, when they close out the preseason against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. This game could determine what the Patriots do under center in their regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 12.

Although the idea of New England shuffling Newton and Jones to ride the hot hand is an intriguing one, those hoping to see it happen may want to temper expectations.

Belichick said he was open to the same idea last year, when Newton was competing with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer in camp, but the coach ultimately gave the former Carolina Panther the full-time job.

Considering Newton started 15 games during his first season in New England and the Pats finished a disappointing 7-9 for the season, whiffing on the playoffs for the first time since 2008, perhaps Belichick will give the unconventional committee approach more serious consideration this time around.