Tony dies at the end. It's obvious, is it not? A mafia show that became death-obsessed in the final season and planted seeds throughout that Tony could get whacked at any moment could conceivably whack Tony at any moment.
Except, we don't actually know that. The show creator will not outright say that's what happened. All we know for sure is that the screen goes black, Journey stops playing and the rest is up to us and what we believe might have happened.
That's where I'm at with Newton's release. It's a blend of our own biases and preconceived notions. There are protocols to consider and egos to manage, locker room chemistry to balance and games to be won. It feels like we all see what we want to see here, and Bill Belichick is pulling his best David Chase impression by not telling us outright how this ended.
In short, I believe the Patriots released Newton because, after Mac Jones did enough to earn the starting job, Newton became an unnecessary liability to the team as a backup due to his vaccination status. I don't have any team source telling me that, to be clear. It's what I consider to be an educated opinion based on an available set of facts and my own set of common-sense principles.
This, of course, will likely never be verified by Belichick or anyone in New England on the record. It would be detrimental to the team if it were, possibly ending with the loss of a draft pick and a fine should an NFLPA investigation find that to be the reason.
The same sort of investigation that will soon be undertaken in Jacksonville after Urban Meyer said the quiet part out loud Tuesday following the roster cut deadline.
"Everyone was considered," Meyer told reporters. "That was part of the production and also, was he vaccinated or not. To say that was a decision-maker, it certainly was under consideration."
Belichick is not an idiot. He has no interest in an investigation into his team that could result in the loss of a draft pick, like the third-rounder he lost in this year's draft, or the 2016 first-rounder because of Deflategate, or the 2008 first-rounder for Spygate.
So when asked flatly if Newton's unvaccinated status played a role in cutting him Tuesday, Belichick said, "No." And before hearing the next question, he took it a step further.
"I mean look, you guys keep talking about that," Belichick said, "and I would just point out that I don't know what the number is. You guys can look it up, you have the access to a lot of information. The number of players and coaches and coach staff members that have been infected by COVID in this training camp who have been vaccinated, it's a pretty high number. So I wouldn't lose sight of that."
From Aug. 1-21, 68 players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 out of 7,190 individuals. League-wide vaccine rates steadily increased over that time period, but it's safe to say that between 85 to 92 percent of the league was vaccinated at any point during that three-week window. The league found the incidence rate among the unvaccinated population was seven times higher than that of the vaccinated population (2.2% positivity rate among unvaccinated versus 0.3% among vaccinated).
But that wasn't exactly the point with Newton, who as an unvaccinated player had to be tested daily at an NFL facility. He took a team-approved medical trip and there was some sort of mix-up — did the Patriots not know the rules? Were they miscommunicated to Newton? Did Newton, and Newton alone, screw up? — and he had to sit out of three practices in five days during a quarterback battle because of the league's protocols regarding unvaccinated players.
Had he been vaccinated at the time, Newton would have only had to test once every 14 days and would have been free to travel to any sort of appointment anywhere without having to worry about the daily testing cadence. Instead, someone somewhere screwed up, and he missed time he didn't have to miss.
Again, Belichick said that played no factor in the decision to release Newton.
"No, we have other players on the team who aren't vaccinated as I would say probably every other team in the league," the coach said. "We've had minimal [infections], but throughout the league there have been quite a high number, I would say, of players who have had the virus who have been vaccinated. Your implication that vaccination solves every problem is just not really... I would say that has not been substantiated based on what's happened in training camp this year."
The implication wasn't that the vaccine would solve everything but that it would have solved Newton's problem from a week ago. At this point, with the delta variant causing yet another wave of trauma, anyone with WiFi or a newspaper subscription knows the vaccine won't solve everything, and I believe Belichick knew that couldn't have been the implication.
Jones won the Patriots starting job; there's no issue from me there. He was consistently great in his three exhibitions. I don't think he won it because Newton isn't vaccinated. He won it because he won it.
The Mac Jones era in New England has begun following the stunning release of Cam Newton. How will the rookie fare this season and what does it mean for the rest of the Patriots' players? Download the CBS Sports app to find out! Plus, get insight from our resident Patriots insider, Tyler Sullivan. If you already have the CBS Sports app, make sure to pick the Patriots as your favorite team for up-to-the-minute news.
But as someone who got the COVID-19 vaccine as quickly as possible and who is pro-vaccine, it's hard for me to divorce my personal beliefs here. On top of that, the NFL-NFLPA joint policies make it clear that there's a competitive disadvantage if a player is unvaccinated. We're seeing it now with Colts quarterback Carson Wentz being sidelined as a close contact just as he was facing a major week in his return to action, and we saw it last week with Newton.
Newton lost the job after starting all three exhibitions. He missed valuable practice time last week and, if he continued to be unvaccinated, there's a more likely chance than those vaccinated that he would miss time again in the future. As a statement of fact: Newton's future availability was unreliable in a scenario where he wasn't doing all he could to control it.
It comes a year after the Patriots had their worst season in two decades. Newton says his 2020 season was derailed after his positive test in Week 4 and that he couldn't get back into the flow. That was when he and Stephon Gilmore reportedly broke protocols, then had the Patriots fly on two separate planes to Kansas City to get whooped by the defending champions while the then-68-year-old Belichick coached from the sideline wearing two masks.
Then Tom Brady won a championship in Tampa. Then more questions about Belichick's legacy cropped up. Then the Patriots went hog-wild in free agency. Then they drafted a quarterback in the first round. Belichick is on a mission, and if your availability cannot be relied upon, I believe you become a liability even if they can't say that.
There's an abounding theory that Newton just wouldn't accept being a backup, that he is so egomaniacal that he couldn't stomach being QB2.
"I'm not going to go through all the different things with any player on that," Belichick told reporters Wednesday, "so we'll just leave it the way it is and go from there."
I believe that line of thinking reveals someone's own biases toward Newton, just as I am admitting mine regarding the vaccine. It recalls a bold and brash Newton from his Carolina days when he was aloof and standoffish at his first Pro Bowl, didn't work out with his teammates, didn't have guys over for dinner at his place or spent an incredibly long time preparing for a post-game interview.
Newton from 2016 wouldn't have been able to process being a backup. He wouldn't have been able to be QB2 in Carolina in 2020, even. But in New England, I sensed a more mature and humbled Newton.
His play fell off a cliff for all to see last season, and as the season wore on he showed the sort of dissipating arm strength that had concerned the Panthers and potential free-agent suitors. Meanwhile, he's been the consummate teammate according to several Patriots. Video of him jokingly tracking Jones until he got a high-five on the sideline this past weekend went viral.
"At least in New England it will force him to be accountable," a person close to Newton told me two months before he signed with the Patriots in 2020. "It will challenge him professionally."
In training camp I put in a request to speak with Newton 1-on-1 for a story detailing the quarterback battle from his perspective. I have covered Newton closely since 2012, and I'd like to believe we have a healthy respect for one another. The message of rejection I heard back was essentially a polite "you know I can't." I took it to mean that even if Newton wanted to, he knew it wouldn't reflect well on him with the head coach if he's doing exclusive interviews about himself outside of his league-required duties.
Outside of getting vaccinated, I believe Newton was doing all he could to win that job and stay on that team.
Then there's the more plausible theory that Newton's presence in the locker room as QB2 could eventually be a disruption, through to no fault of his own. What happens if Jones struggles and there's Newton, waiting in the wings? When Jones finally looks like a rookie in a game or two, would the veterans look at each other and wonder if Belichick should start the former NFL MVP?
In this scenario, sending Newton packing clears the way for Jones in the locker room. He extinguishes that wonder. It's not dissimilar to the Panthers cutting Steve Smith in 2014 to make way for Newton's unquestioned leadership in the locker room.
On the field, between the lines, this team is indisputably better with Jones and Newton as their quarterbacks — in whatever order you wish — over Jones and Brian Hoyer. But if removing Newton from the equation is ultimately what's best for a team starting a rookie, then that again is a conclusion you can draw based on your own set of personal beliefs.
"We've had weeks of meetings on all players, so it'd be impossible to hash everything that happened at that position or any other position," Belichick said when asked why this move was in the best interest of the Patriots. "Ultimately there are a lot of factors that are involved and we made our decisions."
The decision to roll with Jones is a straightforward one. The decision to release Newton is a composite: Once Jones did enough to earn the job, Newton became expendable. His incentive-laden contract couldn't hamstring the Patriots. His inconsistent play and concerns about arm strength as the season went along were on-field factors. His presence in the locker room as the backup may have been cause for consternation. His availability couldn't be relied upon based on his decision to remain unvaccinated, and that's not to mention how his susceptibility to another infection could impact the quarterback room and team at large.
The screen went black on the Newton situation Tuesday, but I think I get what happened.