After two decades of elite quarterback play, the New England Patriots struggled to get consistent performances out of the game’s most important position during the 2020 season. With Tom Brady having left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Cam Newton taking over as the new starter, the team’s aerial game was one of the worst in football and a major contributor to its disappointing 7-9 record.
Despite Newton returning on another one-year deal, and with backup Jarrett Stidham entering his third year in the system, the quarterback position remains the biggest unknown on New England’s roster heading into the 2021 season. The Patriots know this as well, and that they also are aware that they have to figure something out.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft acknowledged as much during a media conference call of Wednesday afternoon.
“We all know, long-term, we have to find a way — either Jarrett Stidham or someone new we bring in,” said Kraft. “This isn’t something where you get algebraic formulas. Think of all the personnel wizards who passed on six rounds for Tom Brady in 2000. No one knows what’s going to happen. We have to balance everything. Look, quarterback is the most important position on the team. We know that. One way or another we have to get that position solidified.”
When Brady left the Patriots last March they had only Stidham, a 2019 fourth-round draft pick, under contract. They re-signed veteran Brian Hoyer a short time later, but also brought Newton aboard in July. The former league MVP eventually won the three-player competition for the starting role, but finished the season as one of the least efficient passers in the NFL.
Newton did complete 242 of 368 pass attempts for a rate of 65.8 percent, but he only gained 2,657 yards through the air while throwing just 8 touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions. He was more effective as a runner — he carried the football 127 times for 602 yards as well as 12 touchdowns — but still failed to help the Patriots offense overcome its struggles.
New England eventually finished the season with its first losing record since the year 2000 while averaging only 18.6 points per game on the offensive side of the ball. Only three teams were worse.
For Kraft, however, not all the blame falls on the quarterback.
“I think in fairness to Cam, I’m not sure he had the proper weapons around him last year and then he got Covid, and there were a lot of things that happened,” the 79-year-old said. ”I don’t think that Jarrett has ever really gotten a fair shot, so we have to wait and see what happens. And we still have the draft, so there are a lot of things that can occur.”
Stidham did not fare much better than Newton last season. After losing the training camp competition and starting the year as the Patriots’ number three, he did surpass Hoyer on the depth chart and saw some action. However, he finished his second year as a Patriot by completing just 22 of 44 pass attempts for 256 yards as well as two touchdowns and three interceptions.
No matter if it was Newton or Stidham, the Patriots’ quarterbacks had a hard time alongside an offensive supporting cast that lacked consistent playmakers.
New England did address this issue during free agency, though. The team signed the two best tight ends available, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, and later also added wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. The four are expected to see considerable action in the Patriots’ offense this year, and play a big part in getting the offense back on track.
Whether or not they will succeed remains to be seen, but the pieces brought in by de facto general manager Bill Belichick still have Kraft’s trust. Belichick, after all, has it as well.
“In the end, I trust Coach Belichick’s ability to build a team and put the right players in a position to succeed.”