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New England Patriots Opt For Rookie Quarterback


Today all NFL teams must drastically reduce their rosters ahead of the start of the season. And the biggest shock - well, the New England Patriots released quarterback Cam Newton. Now, the former NFL MVP started last year for New England, but after an impressive preseason showing by rookie Mac Jones, the team opted for Jones over Newton. For more on this, we're going to bring in Kyle Hightower. He covers the team for the Associated Press.

Hey there, Kyle.

KYLE HIGHTOWER: Hi, Audie. How are you?

CORNISH: All right. To start, tell us how this all unfolded, why a veteran like Cam Newton is suddenly out.

HIGHTOWER: Well, as you noted, Audie, it's a huge shocker here in Massachusetts. Cam Newton, the 2015 MVP, the incumbent starter coming back, hoping to improve off last year's (unintelligible) finish for the Patriots, obviously the first year after the Tom Brady era. But Mac Jones, who became the first rookie quarterback ever drafted during Bill Belichick's tenure in New England - he comes from an impressive pedigree. He comes from the Alabama program in college, obviously coached by Nick Saban, a big friend of Bill Belichick, a guy who we trust. The players coming into his program here in New England really impressed during this preseason.

The thought process was not enough to surpass Cam Newton, obviously a veteran of, you know, going into his 12th year in the league. The prevailing thought was that he would be able to keep his job. However, Bill Belichick has surprised a lot of people, turned his head to the rookie. And we'll see how this era goes.

CORNISH: Let's talk about the issues outside of performance. Cam Newton missed five days of practice due to issues with COVID protocols, right? And that was before the last preseason game.

HIGHTOWER: Yes. According to the NFL protocols that were agreed to by the union prior to the season, unvaccinated players, whenever they leave town, must get tested every day, and they must test negative every day. But if they don't follow this very strict protocol in how they get their testing, they must stay away from the team for five days. Kind of call it a quasi-quarantine. Cam Newton misunderstood the rules for the NFL had laid forth. Therefore, he was subject to that five-day penalty. That opened up the door for Mac Jones to be the lone quarterback in practice. And he used that time to really impress the coaches and really put distance between himself and Cam Newton for the job. And it obviously was enough for him to overtake him and win the job this season.

CORNISH: There was so much kind of writing and analysis and thinking about the idea of Black quarterbacks in the league, whether they cannot just survive the process - right? - of becoming leaders but thrive. And now here we are, Newton kind of unceremoniously dumped. How are people talking about this in the context of that issue?

HIGHTOWER: You know, here in the Boston area, you know, race is always a big deal. It's always an undercurrent to a lot of things, especially in the sports world. Cam Newton is actually just the second Black starting quarterback the New England Patriots have ever had. So obviously, you know, for people of color in the New England area, it was a big deal for Cam Newton to have the job and also equally a big deal for him to lose a job so quickly to another quarterback who happens to be white in Mac Jones and be so young as a rookie. So we'll see how that - you know, how that conversation continues in New England. But it is an undercurrent here in the area and something that people are talking about.

CORNISH: In the meantime, a lot of teams could use a proven quarterback, which Cam Newton is. Do you see him landing anywhere else?

HIGHTOWER: I think there will be a market for him. Again, because he has to wait that five-day period, you know, before he can really visit any other team in the NFL, that does complicate things. But there is some (unintelligible). The Dallas Cowboys may be interested. Dak Prescott is coming back with an injury, and they'd like some insurance behind him. There's probably a place, you know, maybe he'd want to go and play for. It's a team that's going to have a chance to compete for a championship. But it's interesting to see where he goes from here. He's 32 years old. As you say, he's the former MVP. But he is kind of past that prime of his career, so it's going to be tough for him to break in for a starting job. But time will tell to see if he can do that.

CORNISH: Kyle Hightower covers the New England Patriots for the Associated Press.

Thank you for talking with us.

HIGHTOWER: Oh, no problem. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD COHEN SONG, "I CAN'T FORGET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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