OK, even if Newton had lost the quarterback competition to first-round pick Mac Jones, it was understandable to assume the veteran would remain on the roster, especially considering he was a team captain. But then again, his release ultimately sends a crystal-clear message from head coach Bill Belichick:
Jones is now the leader of this squad and there's nothing left to do except move forward.
Anybody who'd been paying attention of late to the quarterback situation in New England should've sensed Jones had a strong chance to win the job. Yes, immediately following the Alabama product's selection with the 15th overall selection in April, Belichick stated "Cam's our quarterback" -- and he reiterated that mindset over the summer. But the head coach wasn't so strident in recent weeks. The more he talked about his quarterback situation, the more it sounded like Jones was making a strong case to win the job.
Jones looked confident and comfortable running the offense during the preseason, completing 69.2 percent of his passes. Newton didn't do much to diminish his cause; his completion percentage was 66.7 and he threw just one interception. In the end, this was really about a common belief in the NFL: When all things are considered equal, go with the option that is younger and less expensive.
Newton may have tons of experience. Jones simply makes the Patriots better because of the economics. The Patriots now have a quarterback on a rookie deal, which gives them at least five years with Jones at a team-friendly rate. If you think Belichick went crazy in free agency this past spring, just wait until you see the kind of moves he can make with a quarterback who isn't crippling his salary cap.
The fact that Newton was cheap this year -- he was working on a one-year deal that guaranteed him $3.5 million -- doesn't matter much. He was always a bridge to something better, an accomplished signal-caller who was mired in the most awkward part of any star's career. Newton deserved credit for how he conducted himself in a difficult situation. He arrived in New England in July of 2020, caught COVID-19 during the season and played with an offense that possessed limited weapons. However, he didn't show enough on the field to think he'd have a career turnaround similar to what Ryan Tannehill has enjoyed in Tennessee.
The final blow for Newton came recently, when what was termed "a misunderstanding" about COVID-19 protocols prohibited the veteran quarterback from entering the Patriots' facility for five days, thus providing an opportunity for Jones to push past him in this competition. Even Belichick acknowledged to local reporters that a door had seemingly opened for the rookie. The safe bet here is that Belichick already was looking for every reason to give Jones the job. After all, this is the man who discovered Tom Brady 21 years ago.
It's also fair to assume that Belichick will steal a page from his playbook back when Brady was a young quarterback trying to find his own footing as a leader. Those Patriots teams of the early 2000s were built on ball control, solid running attacks and stifling defense. They needed Brady to simply be efficient, and the result was three Super Bowl wins in his first four years as a starter.
Jones isn't likely to duplicate that kind of success. What he can do is deliver the types of efforts he's already displayed during the preseason. The Patriots have a strong offensive line, a variety of runners, an assortment of new pass catchers who arrived during the offseason (including tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry) and a defense that should be much stronger with the addition of versatile free agents (like linebacker Matt Judon and defensive back Jalen Mills) as well as the return of familiar faces (linebacker Dont'a Hightower opted out last season, while another linebacker, Kyle Van Noy, re-signed with the team after being released from Miami). All New England needs is for Jones to be reliable and consistent.
The Patriots have upgraded the talent enough to challenge for a playoff spot after missing last year's postseason. The real question is what they could be moving forward.
Every other team in the AFC East has a young quarterback that the franchise is trying to build around, with Buffalo's Josh Allen now considered one of the best in the league. New England wasn't going to keep pace with those squads by giving Newton snaps that easily could've helped Jones mature faster. And as much as Newton earned respect in that locker room, it's going to be easier for Jones to push through the predictable adversity without knowing there's an appealing option on the sideline. Imagine struggling and knowing that there's a former league MVP holding a clipboard next to the coaches. It's far more encouraging when Plans B and C are Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham. (UPDATE: Hoyer is reportedly expected to be re-signed after also being cut Tuesday in a procedural move.)
So the Patriots will move forward with Jones. He may not have been as sexy a pick as the four quarterbacks selected ahead of him in April -- Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields -- but he's easily found himself in the best position of the bunch. Unlike Lawrence and Wilson, he's leading a team brimming with talent and tradition. Unlike Lance and Fields, he no longer has to wonder if he's done enough to own the job.
As for Newton, it's much harder to predict where he goes from here. His performance in 2020, while not entirely his fault, probably won't generate much of a market for his services. He's 32 years old and the only jobs available at this late date are backup opportunities. Even before Newton landed in New England, there was already a question about how he'd function as a second-string quarterback.
Maybe Newton will take his time to determine what comes next. He did that last year before joining the Patriots late in the offseason. However, that also was a point in his career when he still believed he could be the Cam Newton we knew as "Superman." Now he has to figure out what life is going to be like as Clark Kent.
That's a familiar story in this league, especially for quarterbacks who've reached the heights that Newton achieved. Like most players, they're only coveted as long as there isn't a better option in the building. The Patriots spent the last few months trying to figure out if Jones was ready to be such a player. Now they're eager to see what he can do with a team that truly belongs to him.