By DENNIS WASZAK Jr. - Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Tom Brady is long gone and so is the New England Patriots’ seemingly everlasting comfort at quarterback.

For nearly two decades — 19 seasons to be exact — Bill Belichick had no worries about his signal caller. Even when Brady missed all but one game with an injury in 2008, the answer was always the guy in the No. 12 jersey.

While Brady is now in Tampa Bay and playing like his vintage self, the Patriots have rejoined most NFL teams in the quest to find a franchise quarterback.

Cam Newton is under center these days, but he’s struggling after a strong start was paused by a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He has six touchdown runs, showing flashes of the playmaking ability that made him a star. But he has just two TD passes and seven interceptions. Newton’s late fumble last Sunday in Buffalo sealed New England’s 24-21 loss.

“I’m still jeopardizing this team’s chance to win because of my lackluster performance,” Newton said. “Coach trusts me with the ball in my hand. I’ve got to do a better job of protecting it.”

“Cam’s our quarterback,” Belichick insisted. “It’s the way it’s been all year,”

But what about next year? Truth is, next season’s starting quarterbacks for the Patriots and Jets might not even be on their current rosters.

Jarrett Stidham, the one-time heir apparent to Brady, is the only New England QB under contract for next season. Newton was signed to a one-year deal, but has already been benched once and there’s no guarantee he’ll be re-signed. Same for Brian Hoyer.

Belichick is sticking with Newton a the moment, but the coach could be on the prowl in the offseason. Unless, of course, Newton turns things around and even slightly resembles the player he was when he won the NFL MVP award five seasons ago. That could fetch a contract extension and the Patriots’ quarterback of the present — and near-future — would be in place.

But there’s also this possibility, which seems almost ludicrous now: The Patriots (and Newton) struggle so much the rest of this season that they somehow join the mix for Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields or even North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.

The Jets have been in this position before, and way too often. From Richard Todd to Ken O’Brien to Chad Pennington to Mark Sanchez to Geno Smith to Sam Darnold — and the 28 others who have started a game since Broadway Joe’s last appearance for New York in 1976 — finding a long-term, successful and consistent signal caller has been elusive.

And the Jets are there again.

When then-general manager Mike Maccagnan traded up in the 2018 draft and took Darnold at No. 3 overall, the entire franchise believed it had its guy. For the next 10 years, at least.

But Darnold’s inconsistent and sometimes poor play, coupled with injuries to himself and many of the team’s playmakers, and a lack of marked progress in Adam Gase’s offense could have the Jets moving on after just three seasons.

“I have no problem saying that he is our best quarterback,” current GM Joe Douglas said, “and our quarterback for the future.”

But the fact they currently hold the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft and a quarterback many consider a generational talent in Lawrence will be staring at them — if he doesn’t return to school, of course — could force the Jets into making a franchise-altering decision that would have seemed unlikely just a few months ago.

The 23-year-old Darnold has just three TD throws and six INTs along with a league-worst 65.9 quarterback rating. And he’s running out of time to prove he can be a consistently solid — let alone elite — player for the Jets.

“We’re not executing the way that we want and we’re losing too many games,” Darnold said. “For me, I’ve got to play smarter and I’ve got to play better.”

Darnold needs to get on the field first, though — and there’s no guarantee he’ll be back any time soon.

It’s also important to note that Douglas didn’t draft Darnold, who’s eligible for a new deal next year. Douglas and the Jets will have to decide by next May if they want to pick up Darnold’s fifth-year option.

That could all be moot if Darnold’s replacement is already in place. And Darnold could then already be someplace else.

Major resets could be in the game plan in the huddles for New England and New York. But both teams’ focus, for now, is on trying to get this season on track under the primetime lights on Monday night.

“Listen, I just want to win, that’s it,” Newton said. “Nothing else matters. October wasn’t good for me. We have to make sure November doesn’t feel like October. So (playing on) Monday night is good, but ... we have to win.”


AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower contributed.


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