Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jamie Newman, whose transfer from Wake Forest gave Kirby Smart the only experienced starter at QB on his 2020 roster prior to Smart landing fellow transfer J.T. Daniels from USC, opted out of the 2020 season on Wednesday, citing “the uncertainties of this year amid a global pandemic” as his reasoning.
It’s an interesting decision, one that lends itself to opinions — on how a creation of the media can now allow the same industry to put “bust” in a URL, or that the Newman “era” was an “error” — because that’s all we really have at the moment, given that no one has more than a hunch on how Newman would have played this fall. Because Newman was set to play one of the most-scrutinized and most curiously-staffed positions in college football, too, it creates another round of takes about whether Daniels — not medically cleared as of yet — or D’Wan Mathis, a freshman, is now the front-runner for the role.
And because it’s a player leaving his team under a month before a season is about to begin, it could also foment thinking about a player’s responsibilities at this moment. (Dawg Sports rightly points out that two things can be true at the same time: Newman’s responsibility is mostly to himself and he’s obviously fully entitled to making this call, but his teammates can rightfully feel as though they’re being abandoned, at least to some degree.)
What interests me, though, is this begged question: If Jamie Newman isn’t excited enough about playing this season of major college football, why should we expect anyone to be?
Newman’s offseason ride on the hype train from very good Wake Forest signal-caller — whatever you want to say about his splits or ACC competition, Newman’s raw numbers in 2019 were very close to the production from former Georgia QB Jacob Eason at Washington, an NFL draftee, and he was within 10 passing yards per game of Trevor Lawrence, Justin Herbert, and Kyle Trask a year ago, all of which is pretty damn good for the QB at Wake Forest — to Heisman candidate made for easy joke fodder. It’s obviously a touch absurd to assert that any player is a Heisman candidate unless he’s been one.
But Newman was set (at least until the Daniels transfer) to be the obvious choice to be the starting quarterback for a program that has been a Playoff contender and participant in recent years, and one with an offense always stocked with top-flight talent. Jake Fromm, who spent three years at Georgia being seen as either great or average depending on the vantages and allegiances of the people squinting at him, also threw for 24 touchdown passes in each of those seasons, compiled a formidable 78-to-18 TD-to-interception ratio, and led the Bulldogs to three SEC Championship Games, one College Football Playoff Championship Game, and 36 wins.
Approximating Fromm, which I think Newman very much could have done, would have made him a Heisman contender basically by default; exceeding him, as Georgia clearly hoped he could do in Todd Monken’s new offense, might have genuinely made him a threat to Lawrence or whichever Oklahoma quarterback threw for 40 touchdowns.
And while the idea that Newman is now preserving his NFL Draft stock by not getting exposed by the big, bad SEC (expoSEC’d?) has some validity, he’s also sacrificing the opportunity to put excellence against tough foes on film — something that he, unlike established SEC menace Ja’Marr Chase, who could do very little to impress evaluators beyond what he’s already done, could really use to his advantage.
Contrary to what someone who tweets a lot and has an ax to grind against THE OVERHYPING MEDIA might think, Newman’s NFL Draft stock was very probably not meaningfully changed by simply practicing with Georgia — he would have needed to actually play in red and black to make a move, as NFL evaluators do still lean on film (and a pre-draft process Newman will still go through) when making selections.
Maybe he’s protecting himself against an erosion of his stock as a prospect by spending the season away from a team, but Newman is also not capturing more than a fraction of the value he could have earned from succeeding with Georgia ... while also inviting NFL decision-makers to overthink their opinions by pretending that he’s truly abandoning a season that he’s far from the first player — or even first prominent player — to avoid.
And so the best and most logical explanation is that Newman is simply sincerely worried about his future as a player (and maybe as a person) due to COVID-19, and is opting out because of that.
We are, to reiterate a point seemingly lost on many, not currently in a position to know every fact about or facet of falling ill with COVID-19. We think it’s largely survivable for young and healthy people, but there’s evidence that a whole range of post-infection symptoms exist, and mounting evidence that it really does a number on cardiovascular systems.
And when we look at prominent athletes who have had it, we get anecdotes both promising and perilous. Atlanta Braves star Freddie Freeman, who was scared enough by a spiked fewer to quite literally start praying for his life at one point during his bout, is having a rather good 2020 season, with stats in line with or exceeding his season averages. But Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez developed myocarditis that has sidelined him, and the hospitalization of and maternal worry about Indiana lineman Brady Feeney — whose stated desire is to play, but to have it be safe — was perhaps the thing that shifted perceptions most on the viability of major college football among school administrators, as it appears to have generated the deeper focus on myocarditis that various conferences have cited as a significant factor in their decision-making.
Further, it’s hard for me to agree with the argument that Newman being able to control all of his own factors in regards to COVID-19 exposure — if he were to go train with longtime friend Justin Fields, like he did in the offseason, say — is more dangerous to him than the season itself would be. While the superficially persuasive “Players are more safe at schools/in football programs!” line of thinking that became popular after Lawrence spoke for everyone is popular, simple logic dictates that Newman could keep his contact with other people much more limited if the only people he needed to interact with were a single quarterback trainer and any fellow trainees, a cohort factors of magnitude smaller than even the smallest one Georgia would have presented him. (Newman is also probably prominent enough to end up under an agent’s wing and have the expenses of spending the fall training at least partially paid for — which, to be clear, is a privilege he enjoys that players less established than he is might not.)
Newman is likely trading whatever surveillance and care Georgia could provide should he be exposed to or infected with COVID for whatever he can procure on his own, true. But I think any credible epidemiologist would take that trade if asked to design the best plan for a single person to reduce risk.
So, if all that is true for Newman — one of a handful of college football’s players standing to gain the most from playing this fall — then what is there to prevent many other players from following suit if and when breakouts occur, or 1-2 starts dash Playoff dreams, or an abundance of caution leads to a miserable week of taking far more snaps than usual in practice? Pride in team and in quality of work? Fidelity to a fraternity of teammates? The silent coercion of a system that expects players to keep their heads down in a pandemic?
I think those factors all do matter, and I expect some mix of them is why players like Kyle Pitts never gave real thought to opting out. But I also think things are going to move fast and unpredictably this fall, and that there are so many possible perforations in college football’s non-bubble approach to keeping players safe that it’s extraordinarily unlikely that this continuation of the year-long tightrope walk of making a season happen will be completed without some dangerous gusts.
And I think the rational response from many, many players is to do what Newman did Wednesday, and safeguard their talents and futures rather than taking risks — including some players who had previously been fully committed to playing this fall.
You may not like that. You may not agree with it. You should still be prepared for it.