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Couch: Cam Newton’s NFL career is in jeopardy because he refused the vaccine?

Op-ed
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If Cam Newton wanted to dab, he needed the jab.

Why did one of the all-time great quarterback talents and a former MVP find himself coldly dumped from the New England Patriots, and probably the league, in his prime just two days after promoting himself as QB1?

Here is my theory: Newton's career crashed and burned because he wouldn't get the COVID shot. Patriots coach Bill Belichick denied that on Wednesday, saying the vaccine wasn't a factor.

The evidence and timing suggest otherwise.

Players' vaccination status became a growing issue in the league as teams looked to make their final cuts. Jacksonville coach Urban Meyer said he did take players' status into consideration when making final cuts. He said that's because of the league's tougher protocols on unvaccinated players. The players' association told ESPN that Meyer's comments would lead to an investigation.

Belichick said that wasn't a factor in cutting Newton.

"No. Look, you guys keep talking about that. 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 — but the number of players, coaches, and staff members that have been infected by COVID in this training camp who have been vaccinated is a pretty high number. So I wouldn't lose sight of that."

Still, Newton's COVID misunderstanding, as the team put it when he botched a testing protocol and had to sit out five days, showed his lack of attention to detail. Belichick talks about putting team ahead of self-interest.

Newton didn't get the shot, and he's out. Rookie Mac Jones did, and he's the starter. That's no coincidence. A political statement from Belichick? No, it's a reliability demand.

The NFL is trying to bully players into getting the shot. Unable to get a mandate past the players' association, the league has put in protocols with big incentives and consequences. The NFL is making the unvaccinated feel like the great unwashed.

Meanwhile, around the league, players and coaches are out of commission and on the COVID list. It is disruptive to the mission of winning football games. If anything, Belichick stays focused only on that one thing.

The Tennessee Titans are without coach Mike Vrabel, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill is on the reserve/COVID-19 list. So is Indianapolis quarterback Carson Wentz. Several Buffalo Bills are out. Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson has had COVID twice, and the Ravens' whole season could come crashing down if he gets it again at the wrong time.

Newton has proved that he is a high risk, particularly at starting quarterback. Belichick likes to limit risks.

And so will other coaches, which is why it's hard to see why anyone else would take a chance on Newton. Quarterbacks looking for jobs during the season are going to need the vaccine on their resumes.

It is possible that Newton wanted out after Belichick told him Jones would be the starter. When Newton played for Tennessee, he once also opted out rather than being considered for a backup job. If that's the stance he's taking now — starter or nothing — then he is finished in the NFL.

After Newton was cut, ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a longtime NFL journeyman, tweeted: "Bill does what Bill does. Right or wrong, the man is cold blooded and will do what he thinks he has to do. Period. #Patriots."

Former Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel responded with his own tweet: "Cold blooded is a understatement!"

Cold-blooded is not an insult in the NFL. Belichick has always relied on it.

In the second preseason game, against Philadelphia, Newton completed 8 of 9 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. Talk was about how much he had improved since last year, when he signed a bargain contract and didn't have a camp to learn the system.

After the Philadelphia game, though, that's when Newton created more COVID distractions. The Patriots were calling it a "misunderstanding." Newton was knocked out of practices for nearly a week because he had failed to abide by a COVID protocol requiring unvaccinated players to test daily at the team facility. Newton left the facility for the test.

I think that was the end for Newton. Belichick said at the time that it improved Jones' chance to be the starter. Reports were that Belichick was upset that Newton was so reckless.

Last year, Newton contracted COVID, missed one game, and forced the NFL to move the Patriots' game with the Kansas City Chiefs to Monday night. According to the New York Times, the Patriots traveled in two planes, one for players who had been exposed to Newton and one for players who had not.

Newton is a mess that Belichick doesn't want to have to keep cleaning up.

Belichick still has to prove that he can win without Tom Brady. The team has rebuilt quickly and now has a strong offensive line and run game. It needs a quarterback who won't make mistakes.

Patriots fans already saw Jones, the first-round draft pick, as the next Brady, mostly because he doesn't have the incredible athletic skills that Newton does, but is reliable, consistent, and mistake-free.

No one would describe Newton as sure and steady. He is a large and muscular presence, a carefree personality and an inconsistent and inaccurate thrower.

On Sunday, he completed just 2 of 5 passes for 10 yards. He threw an interception when he failed to notice that linebacker Blake Martinez was covering New England receiver Jakobi Meyers. Newton should have lobbed a pass over Meyers' head and let him go get it.

It's all in the details.

"I'm going to be ready," Jones said, "whenever my time comes up."

If only Newton could have said the same.
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