The COVID-19 protocols jointly agreed to by the NFL and NFL Players Association this summer made it clear that players — and ultimately their teams — would be at a competitive disadvantage if they didn't get vaccinated.
Cam Newton may be finding that out this week.
The Patriots' incumbent starting quarterback and leader for the post for Week 1 of the 2021 season (for now) must sit out half of this week's practices because of what the team is calling a "misunderstanding" about testing requirements. Locked in a battle with rookie Mac Jones, Newton will miss the first joint practice with the New York Giants on Wednesday before being eligible to return on Thursday prior to their final exhibition on Sunday.
"On Saturday, Cam Newton traveled to a Club-approved medical appointment that required him to leave the New England area," said the team in a statement Monday morning. "He received daily Covid tests, which were all negative. Due to a misunderstanding about tests conducted away from NFL facilities, and as required by the NFL-NFLPA protocols, Cam will be subject to the five-day entry cadence process before returning to the facility. Cam will continue participating virtually in team activities and return to the club facility on Thursday, August 26."
The Patriots don't explicitly reveal Newton's vaccination status in the statement, but the statement also makes clear he is not if you know the league's protocols. Vaccinated players aren't subject to travel restrictions under the protocols. Vaccinated players (and coaches) are only required to be tested once every 14 days and wouldn't have "received daily Covid tests" like Newton did, according to the statement.
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It's unclear what exactly was misunderstood but it was likely one of two outcomes: either Newton missed one of his daily tests (which would subject him to a $50,000 fine by the league), or he did not get the Mesa test required by the league but another kind of test. Whether it was his fault or the team's or both is also unclear.
Anecdotally, it's also been obvious Newton isn't vaccinated. He's worn masks to outdoor press conferences and declined to divulge whether he got the shot. At this point nearly nine months into an American society with the vaccine, that usually means one has not been vaccinated.
"It's too personal to discuss," Newton said earlier this month. "I'll just keep it at that."
I am pro-vaccine and haven't hidden that when discussing COVID on air or on this here site. Months ago I decided against spending my days railing against NFL players who opted not to get the vaccine. There are too many of them, speaking nonsense too regularly, for me to fight them. I simply couldn't expend any more energy on Cole Beasley or Kirk Cousins or anyone else who chose to be loud and wrong about the vaccine.
So with the best doctors in the world and experts both from the NFL and NFLPA available to Newton, and with plenty of time to develop a full understanding of the competitive advantages of being vaccinated, Newton made a clear and conscious choice to not get the vaccine.
Here you go, I guess.
Mac Jones has performed well consistently in his two exhibitions for the Patriots. Both he and Newton have been up and down in training camp practices over the past month, but Jones has delivered under the lights against Washington and Philadelphia. He's completed 26 of his 38 passes for 233 yards with no passing touchdowns or interceptions. PFF has Jones as the highest-graded quarterback of the preseason, though I'd posit Zach Wilson has been better than Jones through two exhibitions.
Nevertheless, the rookie Jones is applying pressure to Newton when it matters. Head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have called Newton the starter, but it doesn't have to stay that way.
Now Jones gets a few days of unquestioned No. 1 reps, followed by a joint practice against a Giants team who looked worse on Day 1 than Day 2 of their joint practices with the Browns last week.
Beyond what Newton's absence may mean for Jones, though, is what his five-day absence may mean for himself. Last year Newton was the first starting quarterback to test positive for COVID-19 during the regular season after starting the season hot through the first three weeks. He missed one game and looked like a shell of himself when he returned, throwing zero touchdowns and five interceptions the following four weeks as the Patriots went 1-3 in that stretch.
"When I came back, it was something that that's where the lack of an offseason, the lack of time really being invested in the system kind of showed itself," Newton said on the "I Am Athlete" podcast in February.
"By the time I came back, I didn't feel comfortable physically, skillfully. A lot of that discomfort came pre-snap. I'm lost. I'm thinking too much. ... The offense kept going, and I was stopped and stagnant for two weeks. By the time I came back, it was new terminology. ... I wasn't just trying to learn a system for what it was, I was learning a, let's be honest, 20-year system in two months."
The latest COVID interruption to Newton's career comes at a time where he was again making gains on the field. Newton dazzled Thursday against the Eagles, going 8 of 9 for 103 yards and a touchdown. He showed a mastery of the pocket, a strong arm and ability to go through his progressions and torch the Eagles (mostly second-string) defense. Even though Jones had a great night himself, Newton was better.
And now for Newton, a reset. Again. Just as he may have been hitting his groove. Missing time for this "misunderstanding" won't impact his body the way the actual virus did last year, but he'll have to stave off any feelings of discomfort upon his return.
This entire episode for Newton was completely avoidable. But he made his choice to be an unvaccinated player in the NFL under these protocols, and this is a consequence of that. He's put himself at a disadvantage in the first true quarterback battle he's had in his professional career.
And for what?
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