There has been one thing that has been almost guaranteed in Foxborough for the last 20 years – that Tom Brady would be the starting quarterback going into each season. After the 2019 season ended with a disappointing loss to the Tennessee Titans, this certainty began to diminish in New England.
Despite starting 8-0, the Patriots found themselves playing on Wild Card Weekend against a team that barely made the playoffs. The offense dissipated dramatically over the second half of the season, with their points per game dropping by ten points. For the first time in a long time, the New England offense that wasn’t up to par. Drives stalled, no momentum could be found, and even when the historically good defense provided them with prime opportunities, they couldn’t always cash in.
So it’s understandable why Brady, who is now 43, would want to go play in exponentially warmer weather with much better offensive talent around him. The mystery came after he departed. When the news was announced, many began to flock to support Brady’s 2019 backup Jarrett Stidham as the heir to the job. He seemed like a good fit with his mechanics, work ethic, and attitude.
On July 8, New England signed former NFL MVP and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton to a one-year deal. Newton, who only played in two games during his final season with the Carolina Panthers due to injury, struggled to find a new team until the Patriots signed him a few weeks before training camp opened up. The deal seems to provide Newton a chance to prove to the rest of the league that he can still play, while still developing Stidham underneath. In classic Bill Belichick fashion, a starter has not been named for 2020 as the quarterback competition rolls on. Following along with training camp, however, it really doesn’t seem like much of a competition. Newton seems to be running away with it and Stidham is struggling mightily. So what happened to the heir apparent, and is he really able to step in and fill the void?
Coming out of high school, Stidham was one of the top dual-threat quarterback recruits in the entire country. As a senior at Stephenville High School in Texas, he completed 70% of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards and 35 touchdowns. His rushing numbers were solid as well, posting 29 touchdowns and close to 2,000 yards over a two-year span.
His lone season at Baylor came as a backup; he put up respectable numbers, having a passing grade of 91.5 according to Pro Football Focus. That grade was second among Big 12 quarterbacks with 100 or more dropbacks. Stidham transferred to Auburn after Baylor’s sexual assault scandal, but his move to the SEC was criticized by some.
“We recruited him when he left Baylor, and we kept telling him he can’t go to the SEC and play at Auburn or Florida,” a Big 12 coach told Bleacher Report. “Neither one of those teams had any recent history of throwing the ball with any kind of efficiency. Our pitch was simple: You’ll be a first-round pick in the NFL here in this offense. You’re going to get lost there.”
That coach was right – Auburn’s recent track record of dual-threat quarterbacks features them in a run-first model, most notably Stidham’s current competition for the Patriots position Cam Newton. It was pretty prevalent from the start that Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn was going to keep moving with the same offensive system, which did not ideally suit a guy who has the arm talent to accurately reach receivers on the outside and down the field.
To his credit, he put up some solid numbers during his time at Auburn. He threw for just under 6,000 yards, 36 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in two seasons. When you watch the tape, however, there seems to be another side to the story. Malzahn’s offense centers on run-based plays and screen passes, and that was very prevalent during Stidham’s time with the Tigers. Auburn had a screen pass rate of 28.3% during his two seasons, which was first in FBS by over 2%. Over half of his passes came short of the first down marker, which was the highest rate of every SEC quarterback that had over 300 pass attempts during both 2017 and 2018.
Generally speaking, the range of five to 15 yards downfield falls in between “short” and “intermediate” throws for a quarterback. In two seasons with the Tigers, 27.9% of Stidham’s passes fell in that range, which was third lowest among 135 FBS quarterbacks with 300-plus pass attempts. There were not many opportunities for him to put up the numbers he did in high school or prove that he could make the throws necessary to be a professional quarterback.
Clearly, the Auburn offensive scheme was not a good fit for someone like Stidham, who has the potential to thrive in a pro-style offense. Clearly, that Big 12 coach was right that he probably would have been a first-round talent in that conference. What isn’t clear to some is if he can succeed in a starting role.
His first preseason in New England would lead one to believe he could, as he graded out as the third best rookie quarterback with 50 or more pass attempts, behind only Easton Stick and Kyler Murray, according to Pro Football Focus. He threw the ball with supreme accuracy, having the second-highest accuracy rate (which accounts for ball placement) and the lowest uncatchable pass rate among qualifying rookies. Only top-ten pick Daniel Jones had a higher passer rating and yards per attempt average than Stidham.
For the people who say that the preseason doesn’t matter, how else would Stidham be able to prove himself with Tom Brady in front of him? He only threw the ball four times during the regular season, and one of them was infamously notable for him, as it was a pick-six to Jamal Adams in the fourth quarter of a blowout against the Jets. The casual fans saw that and immediately wrote him off. Yes it was not a great throw, but again, it was one of four during the regular season.
Jarrett Stidham’s football path is quite the enigma. A five-star high school quarterback who stuffed the stat sheet every week. A solid backup for a Big 12 team. A poor fit in an offense in one of the most talented conferences in FBS. A fourth-round draft pick. The third best rookie quarterback in the 2019 preseason. It is understandable to not know what exactly he can bring to the Patriots with a roller-coaster resume like this.
It prompts one to stop and wonder what could have been if he transferred within the Big 12, or if the Auburn offense was molded better to his skill set. Regardless, the raw talent is there. He was praised all throughout the 2019 season by his defensive teammates for his week-to-week development during practices.
“He’s done good. He gives us a great look each and every week, throwing good balls,” reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore said in 2019. “That’s what it’s about – everybody making each other better … I feel like he’s gotten better.”
“You see improvement. Each week, he’s making even better throws,” said safety Terrence Brooks. “He seems even more comfortable back there. He’s opening up more … I see a guy who comes to work each and every day and takes advantage of his opportunities. It’s pretty cool to see.”
So far in the 2020 training camp, however, Stidham has reportedly not done enough to become the starting quarterback, and internally there is a lot of frustration with his struggles to develop to that point. To add to this, he has been struggling with a reported leg injury, further hindering the coaching staff’s ability to accurately gauge his progress from year one to two.
These struggles could correlate to not having much time during the off-season to work with his teammates or be in the facility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It could also be just a slow start. While it appears Cam Newton will be under center week one for the Patriots, the stars are still aligning for Stidham to have an increased role down the road, and a chance to shed off the doubts and prove that he can be the quarterback that people have touted him to be.
(Cover Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)