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During the New England Patriots’ training camp practice on Thursday, Cam Newton went 5-for-11 as a passer during team drills for a completion percentage of 45.5 percent. For comparison, fellow quarterback Mac Jones finished the session with a success rate of 68.8 percent after hitting 11 of his 16 attempts.
Statistically speaking, Jones was the better quarterback on Thursday. Statistics can be misleading, however, and that is especially true when it comes to talking about practice.
While the goal always is to hit every pass play, veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer pointed out after the session that the process as a whole is more nuanced at this point in time.
“The thing that you guys have to remember is this is practice. This is when you try new things. This is when you are learning new plays, and there are also different goals for every period,” Hoyer said.
“Some periods it may seem like, ‘Oh man, no one completed a pass.’ But if you’re going to the right plays and it’s new a play, you have to work on the timing of the route. That’s what practice is for.”
Hoyer has seen his fair share of practices over the course of his 13 NFL training camps, so he is very much speaking of experience. He furthermore mentioned that players themselves are not paying attention to statistics in order to determine success or failure during practice. Instead, the goal is a different one.
“For us it’s more, ‘Did you run the play correctly? Did you go to the right area?’” he said.
“Obviously, when you’re throwing to someone you always want to complete the ball. That’s obviously the goal. But there’s also, you know, maybe you’re trying to hold the safety a certain way and now you’re throwing the ball blind. That’s something you have to do where you say, ‘Devin McCourty’s back there, you can’t stare someone down.’ So, you’re a little bit experimenting with things and the only chance to learn is on the practice field.”
Hoyer, who currently appears to be third on the Patriots’ quarterback depth chart behind Cam Newton and Mac Jones, is not the only person within the organization to feel this way. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was also recently asked about charting plays in practice, and he very much expressed the same thoughts on it.
“Right now, everybody’s in a learning phase. What we’re trying to focus on is everybody getting enough reps at the core foundational things in our offense,” McDaniels said. “When we’re charting I’m not charting necessarily… I mean, I know how many completions and incompletions we have because I’m an offensive coach. But that’s really not the important part for me right now.
“The important part for me is: Are we improving in our protection identification? Are we improving in our blitz pickup? Are we improving in our route technique? For the quarterbacks, are we improving in our read progressions? Our throwing mechanics? Those are the things that are going to carry us through the entire season. It’s not going to be, ‘Did we hit this today? Or did we hit that the other day?’”
Coming off only their second practice in full pads, the Patriots obviously still have a significant way to go before competing at a regular season level. And at one point along the way, statistics will become important.
But while preseason games offer a different setting for evaluating them, practice — at least at this point in time — remains a tool to learn and to establish a baseline of fundamentals. As McDaniels stated: What will be carrying the team through an entire season?
To a certain degree, practice success will therefore only be determined much farther down the road.
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