FOXBORO, Mass. — If the 2021 NFL season started today, Cam Newton would be the New England Patriots’ starting quarterback.
And Josh McDaniels believes you’d see a more effective Newton than the one who started 15 games for the Patriots last season.
McDaniels, who’s overseeing a training camp competition between Newton and first-round draft pick Mac Jones, said Newton has strengthened his grasp of the Patriots’ offense as he enters his second year in New England.
“He just knows much more about we’re doing,” the Patriots offensive coordinator said after Wednesday’s practice. “It’s a lot less new learning every day, more repetition of things he already understands. That would be true for I think every player I have ever coached in their second year in our system. Things slow down. Things make more sense. There were things I was telling him to do last year that he didn’t quite understand, but I was telling him, ‘Hey, do it this way. Try and do it that way. Make him the Mike, whatever.’ He was trying to do everything I said.
“Now, he actually understands the ‘why’ on most things. That is really the goal for the quarterbacks — when you’re out there trying to read defenses on a play-to-play basis, if you don’t understand why we’re doing something or why you’re supposed to make the protection slide here or there, it’s a tough position to play. The game has slowed down for him. The offense makes a lot of sense. Like I said, there’s a lot less new learning for him.”
Newton signed with the Patriots late last offseason, then missed time following a COVID-19 diagnosis in October, hindering his ability to digest New England’s notoriously complex offensive scheme. He boosted the Patriots’ ground game (592 yards, 12 touchdowns) but ranked near the bottom of the NFL in most passing categories, throwing more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (eight) and getting benched in three games.
Now that Newton has had a full season and a full offseason in the system, McDaniels is confident he can deliver more positive on-field results.
“I see it,” the coach said. “You can just see it. You hear it.”
A drastically improved collection of pass-catchers should help that effort, as well, as the Patriots overhauled their tight end (Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith) and receiver rooms (Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne) this offseason.
Consistency has been a problem for both of the Patriots’ starting quarterback hopefuls this summer, but Newton has enjoyed the stronger camp overall. Jones has impressed in spurts but also has been prone to rookie mistakes. The rookie endured his worst practice to date on Tuesday before bouncing back with a solid — albeit uneven — session Wednesday.
“He’s good at getting yelled at,” McDaniels said of the former Alabama star. “But they all are right now. He probably thinks his name is not Mac sometimes. This is rookies in training camp. There’s gonna be some good plays and then there’s gonna be some plays that they don’t look anything like what we talked about last night in the meeting. The good thing about this part of our year as coaches is you can walk off the field feeling (bad) about what you did, but ultimately, it gives you an opportunity to get better in the meeting room. … It’s never been perfect in training camp.”
McDaniels said he hasn’t considered potentially using both Jones and Newton as part of the same game plan, utilizing the latter’s rushing ability in select spots.
“I’ve never done that, really,” he said. “We haven’t even gotten close to that conversation, so I’m not sure about that.”
Whether Newton keeps his job or Jones ultimately unseats him, the Patriots’ offense is feeling the pressure to improve its aerial attack.
“Look for me, I was here last year,” McDaniels said. “I have to do a better job, and the quarterback position in general. They know it. I have told them this since April. We have to play better. Our offense has to play better. I have to coach better.
“To me, we’re all in the same boat, in my opinion. He’s got to do better. Whichever guy is under center who is wearing a red jersey has to perform well. The standard here is high. We want to take care of the ball and score points. Whichever guy is under center, that’s his job.”
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