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Random Observations from Patriots Preseason Game 3 vs. the Giants

When I was in middle school, I had a history teacher who was a big Civil War buff. And one of the themes he kept hitting through that unit was how "the Confederates were winning every battle, but losing the war." The point being that while the South kept capturing battlefields, taking fewer casualties and achieving their objectives, ultimately they were simply outmatched in terms of manpower, industrial might and resources. So there was nothing they could do to win the war short of getting the North to surrender. And that was never going to happen. 

I mention this because, now that we've reached the end of the absolute best, most compelling offseason in Patriots history, we can honestly say that Mac Jones beat Cam Newton in just about ever battle of The Palindrome War, but it looks like he lost the war itself. That he was only going to emerge victorious if Newton offered his sword. And that was never going to happen. 

In this final skirmish of the war, Newton was 2-for-5 with 52 yards, no touchdowns and an interception on his two drives, with three points scored. Jones was 10-for-14 (with at least one huge drop), 156 yards, a touchdown and no INTs. Not counting letting the clock run out at the end of the half, he led five Patriots possessions and scored on three of them, including back to back touchdown drives. But Newton was very clearly running the starting offense, and Jones was in the backups. Yes, a couple of weeks back Bill Belichick said we don't need to read anything into that. But the Irish Rose tells me I don't need another scotch on the rocks, and where does that get her? I've said on several occasions during training camp that whenever Jones does take over the starting job, "this is what it would look like." I most definitely would not look like Newton getting light duty with all the starters and Jones playing deep into the 3rd quarter with the depth guys. 

Cam Newton vs. the Dolphins on September 12th. For better or worse, that's how this long-awaited season is starting. 

It wouldn't be my choice. To me, Jones looks ready. He has looked ready for weeks now. He's decisive in his pre-snap reads. Moves in the pocket well. Gets the ball out fast. Yes, he took a delay of game penalty, because growing pains. And there are times when defenses are able to show one look at the snap then roll to another coverage and fool him. But we can say the same for Newton. And he did hold the ball too long and take a sack on one down last night. But almost all of his throws were deadballs accurate. And some were nothing short of elite. Consider the 21-yarder he threw to Kristian Wilkerson off of a beautiful play action fake. Or this one to Devin Asiasi, from a pocket so messy Marie Kondo couldn't spark joy in it:

While taking a hit, Jones read the inside leverage of the defender and delivered a strike on the low outside corner of the plate where only his tight end could get it. And it wasn't even his best throw. 

That would be the touchdown to Isaiah Zuber. With the edge defender in slot coverage Zuber ran a Hoss that included a stutter step that showed a cross with JJ Taylor playing out on the boundary, but instead had his man dropping into the flat to take Taylor. But instead Zuber broke up the seam. Jones anticipated him coming open and delivered the ball before the coverage could rotate:

But Jones most likely did not win the QB1 job. Not because he hasn't played like he deserves it. These numbers speak for themselves:

Not because of any failures of Jones', but because Newton has also played like he deserves it. With the added advantage that comes from 10 years in the league, an MVP and a Super Bowl trip. Jones also has the added disadvantage of being the future franchise quarterback for a coaching staff that is not fighting for their jobs. They'll be patient because they can afford to. Which is a luxury few teams that take a National Championship QB in the middle of the 1st round enjoy. 

The bottom line I guess, is that the Patriots have two NFL starting-caliber quarterbacks. Their situation is the opposite of every election over the last half a century or so, where you're forced to choice the candidate you think is the least corrupt, hypocritical, megalomaniacal horndog. This isn't a lesser-of-two-evils thing. It's two guys the coaching staff feels good about. And at the moment, it would appear they trust Newton more. 

Before we move onto the rest of the game, all in all this has been as good a quarterback camp battle as you could hope for. It seemed to have brought out the best in both of them. Both in their performances and in their attitudes toward the competition. Witness that video I opened with. These guys have genuinely enjoyed the fight. In that way Lennon and McCartney would push each other to do better. Lennon would hear, say, "Penny Lane" and be so blown away by it that he'd go off and come back with "Strawberry Fields" in response. And Brian Hoyer is the Ringo who sits in the studio ripping bong hits and waiting to be told which kids song about life under the ocean he'd be doing. Cam vs. Mac has been steel sharpening steel, and the team is better for it. 

Moving on …

A lot of roster bubble guys got a ton of playing time as the game wore on, so the results are skewed somewhat. But when the Pats defensive players who will actually make the team and play significant roles have been on the field, they have been nothing short of dominant in the three Fauxball games. Until the end of the half, they held the Giants starters to three punts and an interception. In particular, some of the younger guys are really standing out. None more so than Josh Uche. 

Last year, Uche occasionally flashed as an elusive, quick twitch pass rusher off the edge. But seemed a little limited into that specialist role as teams tended to run right at him. But he's made a huge Year 2 jump into more of an every down player. On D'Angelo Ross' interception, Uche didn't bite on the flow of the play away from him, read Daniel Jones' boot action and forced a quick throw in a full sprint:

He was in the Giants backfield, not just last night but pretty much all of last week at Gillette, showing a variety of moves to get both outside and inside of blocks from their tackles. And on his sack, simply overpowered his blocker:

Which is a good play to segue with, because watch it again to see Christian Barmore's bull rush from head-up on the left guard in a two-down lineman set. As a rookie, Barmore is playing with the starters and sitting out the last half to let others claw their way up the depth chart. He's already there. And looks to have a much bigger role than just another member of the interior D-line rotation. 

One guy who doesn't look to have it so good is Chase Winovich, who was out there until the end of the game, playing alongside and against guys who'll be setting up LinkedIn profiles in a few days. That might be because he's missed a lot of time and needs the reps (think Jason McCourty his first season here, when it looked like he might not make the roster but was really just getting time in a new system), or it could be a sign he's been passed on the depth chart to the point he's in danger of not making the club. If he ends up getting dealt for a draft pick I would not be shocked. There are just a lot of guys on this unit who do what Winovich does - Uche, Kyle Van Noy, Matt Judon - better than he does, or who have the potential to, like Ronnie Perkins, who was also taking snaps late into the game. So stay tuned. 

Sticking with the theme of younger players but switching to the other side of the ball, Rhamondre Stevenson is having the kind of preseason that will sell a thousand boxes of No. 38 jerseys. When they drafted him, you looked at his size and immediately had visions of LeGarrette Blount dancing in your head. Dancing on defenders' chests, that is. And Stevenson has done nothing so far but live up to that image, with five touchdowns. Starting with a 91-yarder around the corner of Washington's defense and then outrunning the field, and finishing with this power rush:

That rush was so LeGarrett Blountian that another loss has been added to the 2014 Colts record. Plus he's returned kicks and has been motioned out wide, as Blount used to do. With all due respect to Judon, Barmore, Perkins, Jalen Mills, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, Stevenson is the new face I'll be most excited to see once the bullets start flying. 

And there are these numbers:

That said, Stevenson and Taylor will only be drafting in Damien Harris' jet wash. This is a bell cow back, to be sure. 

Another new face is Shaun Wade, the rookie cornerback they traded draft picks for to get from the Ravens. The Pats had interest in Wade coming out of Ohio State, but the moment was just never quite right to select him. But with Jonathan Jones missing time and Stephon Gilmore's status a total mystery, he was added for depth. The thing about Wade is that he was being projected as a high pick a year ago, but between the chaos of the college schedule changes, some injuries and getting shredded by Mac Jones in the national title game, he dropped. Last night he was getting moved around quite a bit, inside to outside, both sides of the formation. And will likely play sparingly on subpackages until he gets better acquainted with the system. But playing against the Giants future camp cuts, he seemed to be staying with receivers in man coverage and being around the ball in run defense. So a work in progress.

As far as the roster bubble goes, one would assume Gunner Olszewski would be a mortal lock to make it since he was the best punt returner in the league last year. But he had a tough night as a receiver, dropping a well thrown ball from Jones on a deep crossing route, which has been a recurring theme lately. Where as Taylor has shown that he can return punts, be a dependable 3rd down back, and stomp on mofos twice his size:

If the Gun Show goes from Pro Bowler to off the team in one offseason, it might not be the most shocking personnel move of GM Bill's career. But it would be on the short list of shockingest.

Elsewhere on the bubble, Michael Jackson Sr. had a rough night. Including, though not limited to, getting repeatedly targeted on the Giants rare TD drive and being the 12th man on a Too Many Men penalty. If he doesn't make the team, I'll be sorry for him but not sorry for me. Trying to avoid Michael Jackson song lyric puns has been torturous, brutal work for me. But you deserve better. And a guy who I think has quietly made a huge case for himself on a crowded linebacker depth chart has been Harvey Langi, who was all over the place. It won't be easy for him because not only are Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower every down LBs, but Ju'Whaun Bentley seems to be thriving in more of a limited role that suits him better than having to the full time guy in the middle the way he was last year. 

Like I said, this has been the best preseason the Pats have ever had. Not in terms of how well they've played - because who cares? - but in terms of storylines, camp battles, new additions and just overall vibe. I still miss certain superstars who left to go win rings in a Waffle House - and nudie bar-filled hellhole down south. But I don't miss spending all preseason wondering about people's feelings and whether or not their massage therapist is upset about the way he's being treated. 

Congrats to Cam Newton if he did, in fact, win the job. Jones presented him with the biggest positional challenge he's faced in his career and he came out on top. That's impressive for a guy no one wanted for six months in 2020. Now LFG.

Giphy Images.