Despite some difficult circumstances and joining the team relatively late in the process, Cam Newton was able to earn the New England Patriots’ starting quarterback gig in training camp and held onto it ever since. But even though he has played some efficient football at times as a runner and also as a passer, his position on the team is not an uncontroversial one — that is, outside of Gillette Stadium it is not.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, after all, has held onto Newton as his QB1 throughout the season. This is not going to change now, despite New England’s postseason hopes hanging by a thread: Belichick confirmed the former league MVP as the team’s quarterback following its 24-3 defeat against the Los Angeles Rams last Thursday.
“Cam’s our quarterback,” was the simple statement made after the game.
Belichick sticking with Newton makes plenty of sense, despite the cries getting louder for backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham to either get some more snaps than the handful he has seen in end-of-game situations so far. Why? Belichick himself offered the following explanation during a media conference call on Friday when asked about Stidham’s late-game appearance versus the Rams.
“Sometimes there’s situations in a game where you can put somebody in, but we’re trying to win the game,” he said about Stidham replacing Newton under center in the early fourth quarter. “So, that’s what we’re here for is to win the game. So, it was the obvious situation last week with the Chargers, but the point is to try to win. I mean, that’s what’s important to us.”
That last sentence is the key quote from Belichick, and the reason why it is not yet Stidham’s time: the Patriots are trying to win.
There is a case that can be made that Stidham might give them a better chance than Newton based on the numbers the latter has so far posted as a passer (he has completed 66.1 percent of his throws this year for 2,172 yards, 5 touchdowns and 10 interceptions). However, this argument is rather one-dimensional in that it leaves out some important context — context that very much works against Stidham.
Essentially, there are four reasons:
1.) Newton won the job week-in and week-out: Belichick has always said he would be going with the players that give his team the best chance to win, and Newton has proven himself as that player not just in training camp but throughout the season. There has been no indication that Stidham is seen in the same light by the coaching staff, especially given that...
2.) The Patriots are still alive in the playoff race: They will not win the AFC East and their postseason chances are down to a mere 3 percent, but New England still is not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. As long as that is not the case, rolling with the quarterback who gives the team the best chance to win is the smart move.
3.) Stidham is still a developmental prospect: Even if Stidham would be seen as an upgrade over Newton, he still would have to work with the same supporting cast — one that is led by the three-headed monster of Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry at wide receiver, with a pair of inexperienced rookies holding down the fort at tight end. The situation would be a challenging and possibly detrimental one for a young quarterback such as him.
4.) Stidham’s in-game appearances were all uninspiring: While reading too much into late-game action can be a treacherous thing, it cannot be denied that Stidham’s four games this season have been very much a mixed bag. He did look good against the Chargers in Week 13, but did not move the needle versus Los Angeles, while throwing three combined interceptions against the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers earlier this year.
The first two points listed here are the most important ones when it comes to the remainder of the Patriots’ 2020 season. As long as they are still in the playoff hunt, going away from the quarterback who is seen as the one to give them the best chance to win would make little actual sense. Stidham might be the future after all — it is hard to see based on his limited looks so far — but the present is Newton and trying to win games.
Obviously, however, that does not mean that the situation could change. Even if the Patriots win the next two games against the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills, there is a chance they are eliminated from postseason contention ahead of the regular season finale.
If that is the case, an argument can be made for Stidham to see increased playing time and maybe even the start versus the lowly New York Jets in Week 17. That would give him his first extended look since the preseason 16 months ago and some experience with the first-team offense, and the coaching staff an extended look at a passer who is currently the only one scheduled to be under contract beyond the 2020 season.
For now, however, the show is still Newton’s.
In the meantime, Stidham will have to continue to do what he is asked to do: serve as a scout team quarterback in practice, help the defense prepare for its upcoming opponent, and back up Newton. That is what he has done ever since rising to the number two spot on the depth chart after Week 4, and Belichick appears to be pleased with how he handled those duties.
“Jarrett’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and he’s done everything that he can do. I don’t think you can ask any more than that,” he said last Friday while also noting that the young QB has improved quite a bit. “Knowledge of our system, knowledge of the league, building good habits, building good fundamentals, gaining experience — those things are true for all players at that stage of their development.”
Belichick’s comments were echoed by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels later that day. When asked his thoughts on Stidham, he pointed out that opportunities would not necessarily be defined by playing time but also by what happens on the practice fields.
“I just look at each opportunity to evaluate a player as its own entity,” McDaniels said. “Whether he comes in like he did in the Chargers game and plays a handful of meaningful snaps there, or last night, you can only evaluate what you have. Obviously the biggest body of work we can see from Jarrett is in practice. We’ve had an opportunity to see him improve, particularly on the practice field and over the course of two years. He’s certainly made progress in some areas. He’s got room to grow as well. ...
“In some some ways he made the most of the opportunities but there’s definitely some things we can fix and tweak as we move forward, and hopefully improve from some of the things that we see on tape.”
That tape extends beyond his 68 offensive snaps this year, and also includes practice. Based on it and the general construction of the team’s offense, Newton remains the top option heading into this week’s game — and likely for as long as the Patriots still have something other to play for than finishing each week well.
As a result, the Patriots sticking with Cam Newton as their starting quarterback makes all the sense in the world. It just is not Stidham’s time.