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Kelley: Can Mac Jones in New England be Salvaged?

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New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) reacts after throwing an interception during an NFL football game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts at Deutsche Bank Park Stadium in Frankfurt, Germany, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)

Very few people following the New England Patriots have been as supportive of Mac Jones as I have. My brothers have stated I defend him more than his own parents. Based on how things have gone in 2023, this is obviously not a boast on my behalf; just clarifying that I am not somebody that wants to ditch the quarterback after every poor performance. But after last week’s game in Germany, resulting in another Patriots loss, it is difficult to see the silver lining in the Patriots quarterback any longer.

Even to an optimist like me, it appears it might be time to end the Mac Jones Era in New England.

Drafting a National Champion

When Mac Jones fell to New England in the 2021 NFL Draft, I thought it was a great selection. At the time the top two players on my personal draft board were Mac Jones and Christian Barmore. Not only did the Patriots get Jones at 15, but they also moved up in the second round to take Barmore. What a draft! I had Jones ranked ahead of Zach Wilson, who the New York Jets selected second overall. Unlike teams who used a lot of draft capital to trade up to get their guy, Bill Belichick stayed in the 15 spot and still wound up with Mac Jones. To date, those other trades have not worked out for either team.

Jones had helped lead Alabama to the 2020 CFP National Championship in his first full season as a starter. That Crimson Tide offense was loaded. Mac Jones was surrounded by future NFL players in wide receivers Jaylen Waddle (Dolphins), DeVonta Smith (Eagles), and John Metchie III (Texans). The running backs were Najee Harris (Steelers) and Brian Robinson (Commanders). Alabama’s offensive line won the John Moore Award as the best line in college football.

With a team-wide talent advantage against all opponents, Mac Jones thrived. He threw for 4,500 yards, completed 77.4% of his passes, had 41 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. Jones won several postseason awards (Davey O’Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, Manning Award) and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, I had him ranked as ninth best NFL prospect. I felt he was not given enough credit because of how good his supporting cast was, like former teammate Jalen Hurts.

For a while, this evaluation felt vindicated.

2021 – Really Good Rookie Year

In his first NFL training camp, Mac Jones beat out incumbent Cam Newton for the starting quarterback job. Newton wound up getting released, solidifying Jones as the starter. As a rookie, Jones was not perfect, but he was very good.

The Patriots earned a spot in the playoffs, and Jones he had an excellent year individually. The confidence with which he played at Alabama seemed to carry over to Foxboro. He was the first rookie quarterback in AFC East history to win 10 games. He also broke the AFC East rookie record (previously held by Peyton Manning) for most passing yards. Jones finished the regular season completing 67.6% of his passes for 3,801 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Very solid.

The playoffs did not go as smoothly for Mac Jones or the Patriots. New England travelled to Buffalo and got trounced by the Bills, 47-17. Considering the defense got zero stops the entire game (literally) the amount of blame Jones got for the loss seemed absurd. He did not play great (24-of-38 despite five drops, 232 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions) but it is tough to beat any team that scores a touchdown on every possession. Patriots fans seemed upset that rookie Mac Jones wasn’t as good as Bills QB Josh Allen in his fourth season. This hardly seemed fair.

But Mac Jones went to the Pro Bowl as a replacement, did the griddy, had a blast, and left me feeling very optimistic of what was to come in his sophomore season.

Josh McDaniels Out, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge In

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels left New England after the 2021 season to become head coach Las Vegas Raider. Bill Belichick seemed to replace him with nobody. Former Patriots assistants turned ex-NFL head coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge were pegged to run the offense. Apparently neither Patricia (defense) nor Judge (special teams) having offensive pedigrees mattered. Expectations were not high and were not surpassed.

Rhamondre Stevenson was very good for the Patriots offense. Jakobi Meyers was solid. But high-priced acquisitions Nelson Agolor, DeVante Parker, and Jonnu Smith did little. Kendrick Bourne was a potential difference maker but spent most of his time in the coaches’ doghouse, which was not on the field. Rookie Tyquan Thornton was either injured or unproductive. Mac Jones was frustrated.

Once again, I defended Mac Jones. The offensive game plan was predictable. Jones did not have great weapons or protection. Draft capital used on Thornton and guard Cole Strange did not pay dividends in 2022. The quarterback seemed to have zero confidence in his coaching staff.

By the time Jones got injured in Week 3 against Baltimore, a loss that dropped New England to 1-2, many had already turned on him. This did not seem particularly fair. It appeared many hoped the next Patriots quarterback should also be the next Tom Brady. And, to paraphrase former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino, “Tom Brady ain’t walking through that door.”

When Jones was injured, his screaming while exiting the field (while seriously injured) fed a narrative that he was not tough enough. I received several texts of a photo of Jones in agony from people ready to move on from Mac Jones. None of this made sense. He had a very good rookie season, switched coordinators, had minimal help, and was less than three games into year two.

Zappe-Mania

With Jones out injured, rookie Bailey Zappe played excellent. Zappe came on in relief of Brian Hoyer in Week 4 against Green Bay, which ended in an overtime loss. But the Patriots then reeled off consecutive wins with Zappe as their starting quarterback.

After scoring 50 points in Jones’ three starts, the Patriots had 67 in Zappe’s two. Nobody cared that the defense and running game accounted for four of seven touchdowns in those games. Zappe was the first rookie quarterback to win his first two starts and post a QB Rating over 100 in both during the Super Bowl Era.

Perhaps prompted by the prospect of losing his job while sidelined, as Drew Bledsoe had famously done, Jones came back sooner than expected. He was reinserted as the starter to face Chicago on Monday Night Football after a three-week hiatus.

Unfortunately for Jones, his comeback game failed to impress. Fans wasted no time letting him know he was not their preferred QB. Chants of “Zap-pe! Zap-pe” rained down early. Fans got their wish when Bailey Zappe entered in the second quarter, New England trailing 10-0. Two drives later, spanning seven offensive snaps, the Patriots led 14-10. Zappe went 4-for-4 for 97 yards and a touchdown. Zappe-Mania was officially at a fever pitch.

But after his torrid start, Zappe was 10-for-18 for 88 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and fumbled once. He had several balls knocked down at the line of scrimmage, looking overwhelmed at times. Mac Jones would get his job back the following week. The story told to the media was that Zappe coming on in relief was the plan all along. Bailey Zappe would not play again in 2022.

Finish to the 2022 Season

Following the Chicago loss, New England won three straight and four-of six. At 7-6, playoff hopes for the New England Patriots were still alive. They headed to Las Vegas to take on Josh McDaniels’ Raiders.

Mac Jones had no turnovers in Las Vegas but did not play well. Just the same, the Patriots had a chance to win. With the game tied at 24 and seemingly headed to overtime, New England ran one final offensive play. From their own 40-yard line, Rhamondre Stevenson took the handoff. The Patriots appeared fine running out the clock to head to OT. But after Stevenson advanced to the Raiders 30-yard line, Patriots players began acting as though they needed to score on this play.

Stevenson lateraled to Jakobi Meyers, who ran ten yards in the wrong direction. Meyers then attempted to throw back across the field to Mac Jones. The lateral/pass from Meyers was intercepted by former Patriot Chandler Jones of the Raiders. He stiff-armed Mac Jones, virtually running over him, and took it the distance for the game-winning touchdown as time expired.

After some originally questioned the call by Belichick and decision by Meyers, attention turned to Mac Jones being steamrolled by Chandler Jones. Was the last-second loss to the Raiders Mac Jones’ fault? Of course not. Did he receive more of the blame as the week following the loss progressed? Yes. Again, ridiculously unfair.

Jones played well in a loss to Cincinnati and a victory over Miami after the loss in Las Vegas. He finished out the season with a stinker against the Bills. The 2022 season was over with an 8-9 record, and no postseason berth for New England.

Bill O’Brien Sparks Optimism

Following the disappointing 2022 campaign, the New England Patriots shook up their coaching staff. Coming back to New England was Bill O’Brien as the new offensive coordinator. He had a successful run in New England in the same role before becoming the head coach at Penn State, head coach of the Houston Texans, and offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Mac Jones certainly seemed pleased with the decision, praising his new coach often during training camp. Although some in the media speculated there would be a quarterback controversy in New England between Jones and Zappe, nothing like that ever materialized. Jones was clearly the better quarterback throughout training camp. The offense, which wasn’t even good in practice the year prior, was well organized and run with purpose. The contrast was obvious and encouraging.

New England began the season against Philadelphia. Mac Jones threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns. But the only play people seemed to remember was the pick-six thrown to Eagles cornerback Darius Slay in a five-point loss. The next week against Miami, Jones had nearly identical numbers to Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa, without the benefit of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The Patriots lost 24-17 and the focus was on how Jones can’t win when the opponent scores 24 or more points.

In a win over the New York Jets in Week 3, Mac Jones had an average performance, but no turnovers. It looked like the formula for winning with Mac Jones at quarterback was rediscovered: effective running game, great defense, and no turnovers. But this would prove easier said than done.

Things Begin to Fall Apart

Over the next three weeks, New England Patriots lost three times: Blowout defeats to the Cowboys and Saints, and a defeat at the hands of the struggling Raiders. Over those three-games, Mac Jones threw no touchdowns and committed seven turnovers (five interceptions, two lost fumbles).

He rebounded from that awful stretch with his best game of the season vs. Buffalo. Jones completed 25-of-30 passes for 272 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. Not coincidentally, the Patriots offensive line had their best game of the season, with Mike Onwenu having moved to right tackle Their record was 2-6, and some fans were rooting for the team to lose, but it was tough to complain about Jones’ performance that Sunday.

The Bills performance wasn’t a springboard back to respectability though. The Patriots offense trended in the wrong direction, in losses to the Dolphins, Commanders, and Colts.

Against Miami, Jones threw a costly interception to Jalen Ramsey. The turnover gave away possession and points, as New England was deep in Dolphins territory. His confidence never seemed to rebound.

Against Washington, an interception proved to be the Patriots final offensive play. Jones’ pass bounced off the hands of JuJu Smith-Schuster before finding its way to the defense. The interception wasn’t his fault, but his throws were often floaters. Jones lacked crisp passes and quick decision making.

Last Sunday, New England’s offense was brutal in a 10-6 loss. Mac Jones threw an interception on one of the worst passes by an NFL quarterback in recent memory. With a chance to pull out the victory on their final possession, the Patriots opted for Bailey Zappe at quarterback (who threw an interception). Game on the line, and the coaches decided a rusty Zappe gave them the best chance to win.

From Phil Simms…

When Mac Jones was coming into the 2021 NFL Draft, my NFL comparison for him was former New York Giants QB Phil Simms. He was not going to be an explosive playmaker, but he was capable of being a solid quarterback that could succeed with a solid supporting cast.

Simms had won a Super Bowl with a 1986 Giants team featuring an All-Pro running back (Joe Morris), All-Pro tight end (Mark Bavaro) and a defense led by the legendary Lawrence Taylor. It was easy to envision an NFL team built around Mac Jones in a similar way. He would simply need to be the captain of the ship, more responsible for not losing games than winning them. But the turnovers from Mac Jones has made that plan a failure. It also fair to question if it is possible to win in the NFL in 2023 the same way one could in 1986.

Coincidentally, Phil Simms is the only other quarterback that has ever been drafted by a team with Bill Belichick on the coaching staff in the top 50 of selections of an NFL Draft. So when Mac Jones landed with Belichick in New England, it seemed like a good match. Unfortunately, New England has not surrounded Jones with the same level of talent Simms enjoyed in New York. As a result, Mac Jones has begun to resemble another NFL quarterback from the 1980’s.

…to Tony Eason

Tony Eason was the New England Patriots first round pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. In a draft that featured future Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, the Patriots would up with Eason. Like Mac Jones, Tony Eason was selected fifteenth overall by New England. While Jones has been saddled with the expectations of replacing the irreplaceable Tom Brady, Eason also faced unfair comparisons.

The Patriots quarterback prior to Tony Eason’s arrival in Foxboro was Steve Grogan. Many consider the years before Bill Parcells arrived in New England to have all been dark days, though Grogan was 75-60 as a starting quarterback for the Patriots. But it was not Grogan’s success that Tony Eason had a hard time emulating; it was his toughness.

Steve Grogan might be the toughest QB in NFL history. He wore a neck roll. Grogan was a blue collar guy, which is always appreciated by Boston sports fans. He constantly took hits that looked like they should end his career. But he always stood in there and took them, then headed back to the huddle for the next play.

Eason was 31-23 as a starting quarterback with the Patriots. He helped the 1985 AFC Champions become the first Wild Card road team to reach the Super Bowl (New England’s first ever Super Bowl appearance). But in the Super Bowl, Eason began the game 0-for-6 passing. He was sacked three times and lost a fumble. Grogan replaced him in the second quarter. Everything in that Super Bowl exemplified why Eason would never be embraced by Patriots fans. He was considered a wimp. He prepared to get hit before the defense arrived. Basically, Tony Eason appeared to be everything that Mac Jones is currently accused of being.

What Comes Next?

Fair or not, Tony Eason never altered the Patriots fans perception of him. Mac Jones should be given every opportunity to do so. New England is no longer playing for 2023, so the 2024 season has to be factored into all decisions.

Bailey Zappe will not be the New England Patriots starting quarterback in 2024. Same goes for Will Grier and Malik Cunningham. While it might be unlikely Mac Jones will be the Patriots starting quarterback next season, it is the only option among the current crop of quarterbacks. As a result, Jones should start out the remainder of 2023.

What is there to lose? If Mac Jones gets every opportunity to keep his job and does so, New England can build up his supporting cast in the offseason. Instead of targeting a quarterback in the first round, the Patriots can get him help. And if Jones plays out this season with no signs of improvement, New England confirms that they need replace him. They’ll have a high draft choice to help them do so.

Mac Jones is still on his rookie contract. If he shows what he did at Alabama, or as an NFL rookie, he can still be like Phil Simms, capable of NFL success. But he needs better protection and better weapons. Jones also needs to play smarter and tougher. Is he capable of doing so? Certainly in spurts, as was witnessed in the Bills game this year. Is that sustainable? Jones hasn’t proven so to date.

It is important for Mac Jones to realize the best way to win over New England Patriots fans is by winning, as evidenced by Tom Brady. The next best way to win fans over is by being tough. Stand tall in the pocket, be willing to take a hit, and no whining. As evidenced by Steve Grogan’s 16 seasons in New England, these are good attributes to help one be embraced by fans, and enjoy a lengthy NFL career. Otherwise Mac Jones will wind up ousted from Foxboro, as Tony Eason was 34 years ago.

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