When the New England Patriots took the practice fields on Monday morning, Cam Newton was suspiciously absent. The reason was revealed by the team a short time later: Newton has to sit out five days under the NFL’s Covid-19 protocols after leaving the New England area to receive club-approved medical treatment.
The whole affair was labeled a “misunderstanding” but the rule book knows no mercy. Newton will miss three practices, including the first of two joint sessions with the New York Giants, and will not be allowed to reenter the Patriots’ facility until Thursday.
The timing is obviously not ideal given that the team is in the middle of training camp and slowly starting to get into a regular season routine. The fallout from the news goes beyond any disruption caused by Newton’s trip and the subsequent five-day absence, though.
The Patriots’ quarterback competition could also be shaken up by Newton’s current status.
One thing has to be clear, though: five days away from the facility per se will not decide the battle between Newton and Mac Jones in favor of the first-round rookie. A lot goes into the decision about who will start once the regular season begins in mid-September. However, the door is now slightly open for the youngster — something it did not necessarily appear to be based on how the two were used in preseason so far.
The biggest issue here is actually not any missed practice time. Players miss practice all the time for medical reasons, giving their competition opportunities to seize more reps or take over unexpected roles.
However, Newton’s protocol-mandated absence confirms that he has not yet been vaccinated against Covid-19. That could very well be seen as a problem.
There has been debate about the vaccination throughout the league, and Patriots safety Devin McCourty reiterated the “personal choice” aspect following Monday’s practice. One thing can still not be denied given the framework the NFL built this offseason: players who are unvaccinated are subject to more scrutiny, and will have a higher chance of missing time (let alone being vulnerable to Covid-19) than their fully vaccinated counterparts.
Whether or not the team and/or Newton made a honest mistake does not matter. He is out until Thursday, while Mac Jones is out there on the practice fields.
Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels both mentioned the importance of consistency when speaking about the Patriots’ quarterback position recently. While they talked primarily about areas such as decision making or ball security, one has to assume that this includes consistent availability as well.
Belichick has repeatedly stated in the past that availability is oftentimes more important than ability. Considering the NFL’s current protocols, that availability is not a given this season until Newton’s vaccination status changes.
Fairly or not, it could therefore also be a factor to consider when it comes to New England naming a starter. That is life in the NFL in 2021.