FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Not quite 24 hours have elapsed since NFL teams were required to whittle their rosters down to 53 players for the start of the 2021 regular season. And while the dust still hasn't entirely settled anywhere – more leaguewide transactions are likely to come between now and opening weekend – neither has the reaction to New England's parting of ways with veteran QB Cam Newton and presumably turning the franchise reigns over to rookie first-round draft choice Mac Jones.
Head coach Bill Belichick, as you might expect, came to his Wednesday morning video conference with reporters loathe to delve into the topic. Thankfully, some of his assistant coaches, who joined in thereafter, were more forthcoming about the team's decision to entrust the offense to a rookie passer – the first since Drew Bledsoe in 1993, assuming Jones does start the upcoming season opener against Miami on September 12.
For most of the past two decades, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been with the organization in that job, as well as the dual role of quarterbacks coach. He's thus worked closely both with Bledsoe and the former first-overall-pick's eventual successor, Tom Brady. McDaniels has seen quarterback play at its highest level for a considerable amount of his coaching career and therefore has an enviable perspective on just how impressive an accomplishment it was for Jones to unseat Newton, a former NFL MVP.
"It was very competitive … These decisions are not easy," McDaniels asserted. "We were pretty much splitting [snaps] between him and Cam for most of camp. It's an evaluation, when you look at the whole body of work, since [Jones] got here."
McDaniels credited Jones for his hard work on and off the field, being prepared mentally and physically for each practice and preseason game this summer, his first with New England after leading the University of Alabama to a 2020 national championship in his one and only season as a college starter.
"[Mac]'s just come in and ... Put the game and the team first," added McDaniels. "He studies hard, never makes excuses ... He's learned how to operate what we've asked him to operate so far fairly well, and he's improved and continues to make progress. He's generally taking care of the football. He's given the other 10 guys on the field an opportunity to do their jobs effectively, produce positive plays."
Perhaps as important – and maybe as difficult – has been Jones' ability to earn both his coaches' and his teammates' trust in so short a period of time. That has come, according to his coaches, in large part by the way he interacts with his veteran teammates as they continue to develop their working relationship, particularly when mistakes are made.
"He's always encouraging them," co-wide receivers coach Troy Brown observed about Jones' emerging bond with that group (Brown, incidentally, shares the receiver coaching duties with Mick Lombardi). "If a guy drops a ball, [Mac]'s always coming over to encourage them. He has good body language with them. He's not getting down on them because they dropped a pass. He's shown that leadership that you rarely see in young players."
Brown, of course, played wide receiver alongside the aforementioned Bledsoe and Brady for several seasons (1993-2007), so, he fully understands the dynamic that exists between an NFL QB and his pass catchers. Certainly, as a first-round draft choice, Jones' Patriots debut would have come eventually, but for his expected first appearance to come right out of the gates this season wasn't a foregone conclusion, his coaches insist.
"Whatever Mac earns is what Mac gets," emphasized Brown. "Obviously, he's earned the right to be here as the quarterback of this football team. He calls the shots when they're on the field. He's shown the ability to be a good leader, good in the locker room, great with the guys – great with the receiver group, I know for sure. He's been a tremendous leader. Those are qualities he had at Alabama and I think they're starting to show now.
"Mac's been incredibly poised, been able to improve over the course of training camp. He's put in the work and been a trusted player for us since he got here."
"There's no easy way to earn trust or respect in this league. It comes from preparation and performance," added McDaniels. "He still has a lot to learn and a long way to go in terms of hopefully where we end up going, but I really feel confident about his approach, his ability to learn, to process information, and really, his ability to make a mistake and learn from those, too."
It should be noted the Patriots released not only Newton on Tuesday, but longtime backup Brian Hoyer as well, leaving New England, at least temporarily, with just Jones on the active QB roster. The expectation, though, is for the Patriots very soon to add another arm or two, likely even Hoyer's, to the depth chart. The offensive coordinator admitted as much when asked about it Wednesday morning. In fact, by the early afternoon, media reports indicated that Hoyer had been signed to New England's practice squad.
McDaniels also cautioned that Jones and the Patriots offense could experience more growing pains along the way as they implement new and different elements of the playbook into the rookie's repertoire. However, Jones has apparently demonstrated a comfort with enough of the system to this point to give New England the confidence to move forward with him under center, beginning with the opener against their AFC East rival Dolphins next Sunday.
"Every rep he takes is valuable. The more you can put him in those positions and let him experience those things, the better off he's going to be."