Not even two weeks ago, the New England Patriots were still very much alive in the race for a wild card playoff spot in the AFC. Sure, they needed some outside help, but running the table over the final four weeks of the regular season would all but guarantee them a spot in the tournament. A lot can change in the NFL within just a few days, however, especially for a team with as razor-thin a margin of error as the 2020 Patriots.
Change, the team’s outlook certainly did. Not only did the Patriots lose to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14 to drop below .500 again and see their playoff odds go down all the way to just 2 percent, they also were defeated by the Miami Dolphins one week later to officially seal their fate: for the first time since the Tom Brady-less 2008 season, New England was eliminated from postseason contention.
The two losses in L.A. and Miami that effectively helped end the Patriots’ playoff aspirations had a lot in common, but one aspect still stands out: the club’s inability to find the end zone.
New England scored a mere three points versus the Rams, following up this performance with a 12-point outing in Miami that came entirely off the right leg of place kicker Nick Folk. While the offensive output was not the only issue for the team, it certainly did not help that the Patriots struggled to string positive plays together and take advantage of their field position by going a combine 0-for-5 in the red zone.
Whenever that happens, fingers naturally tend to get pointed at the most important position on the field: quarterback. In New England’s case, that means pointing fingers as first-year Patriot Cam Newton.
The former league MVP, who joined the Patriots as a free agent shortly before training camp and faced a challenging situation throughout his tenure with the club so far, was asked about his status after the 22-12 loss to the Dolphins. He gave a rather diplomatic answer, talking about his own performance rather than his standing on the depth chart.
“I don’t know,” Newton said when whether or not he expects to remain New England’s QB1 for the upcoming game against the Buffalo Bills. “Listen, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m asked to do, and for me, I just got to keep getting better, keep doing what’s asked of me and go over and beyond and try to learn the system each and every week. I know we’re still in the latter part of the season, but still trying to learn as much as possible. ...
“I can critique my play, and I have to play better. I have to be better and that’s what I just plan on keep doing.”
Despite Newton saying all the right things, it cannot be denied that the Patriots have struggled to put points on the board with him under center. With the playoffs out of reach, could a change at the position therefore be in the cards for the team?
Just one week ago, we wrote the following about Cam Newton possibly getting benched in favor of second-year passer Jarrett Stidham:
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.
On top of this assessment, four points were listed that worked in favor of Newton over Stidham at the time:
1.) Newton kept winning the job week-in and week-out
2.) The Patriots were still alive in the playoff race at the time
3.) Stidham’s development might suffer given the supporting cast
4.) Stidham’s in-game appearances were all uninspiring
All but the second point still apply today, but that singular change is a big one from the team’s perspective. The Patriots essentially have nothing to play for over the remaining two weeks of the regular season given that they are eliminated from the playoffs but still too good record-wise to move into top drafting territory.
So, why not use those games to get a better feel for the young talent on the roster especially at the most important position?
There is certainly a strong case to be made for Stidham to get increased playing time after he has served as a backup to Brady and later Newton over his first two seasons in the NFL. The former fourth-round draft choice saw only limited playing time along the way, and whenever on the field appeared to be rather shaky: Stidham has completed just 54.1 percent of his passes for 226 yards and a 2-to-4 touchdown-interception ratio.
As was also noted above, however, he has never prepared as the number one quarterback. So that is where the process would start, if the Patriots indeed felt comfortable in handing the keys to him if only for a few series in each of the next two games.
“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,” head coach Bill Belichick said about the young passer last week. “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.”
Could all of this lead to him getting the Patriots’ starting role over Newton sooner rather than later? Well, it is not as high-and-dry as it might seem.
While New England does have nothing left to play for in terms of reaching the postseason, it seems unlikely the team will just stop trying to compete and send a second-string squad out there. Players and coaches alike are still trying to win games, and to present themselves for potential future roles either within the organization or elsewhere. 19 members of the current 53-man roster — including Newton — are currently headed for unrestricted free agency, for example. They would very much like to put some positive tape on film.
Bill Belichick himself, despite the need to figure out the quarterback situation beyond the 2020 campaign, might also not be as quick to go with a passer he does not see as the best option to put his team into a position to win. After all, he said just that last week.
“The point is to try to win. I mean, that’s what’s important to us.”
So far, Newton has repeatedly been deemed the quarterback to lead the offense because he is seen as the best option to do so. Sure, the results have been underwhelming at times and contributed to the Patriots missing the postseason, but does Belichick alter the process now? This could very much be questioned based on that statement as well as his previous approach to seemingly “meaningless” football games.
What will therefore happen? Only those working at One Patriot Place know the answer, but it would not be a surprise if Newton remained New England’s nominal starting quarterback even after the playoff elimination. Stidham might be given additional reps with the starters and eventual playing time, though — if not this week, then maybe next.
That said, he probably should not expect to play 100 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps over the next two weeks. It might seem like the smart thing to do based on the limited information available from the outside, but we know that Belichick does not run his organization based on conventionality or popular beliefs. Why should an unconventional 2020 season be any different?
Who do you want the Patriots to start at quarterback this week?
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