Will Mac Jones return to his rookie form and overcome Patriots’ offensive struggles?
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The last time Mac Jones faced the Buffalo Bills, a 47-17 loss in last season’s wild-card round, he was wrapping up a successful rookie campaign that left little doubt he was the New England Patriots‘ quarterback of the future.
The teams meet again Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video), but the conversation surrounding Jones, the 15th overall pick in last year’s draft, has changed with the Patriots’ offense struggling for most of the season.
How much of it is on Jones? Or the significant coaching changes around him? Or the changes to the Patriots’ offensive playbook?
“It’s hard to watch him this year because I don’t think they’re helping him out very much,” said Matt Hasselbeck, an 18-year NFL quarterback who now serves as an analyst on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown. “I thought he did a really great job last year — the best quarterback in his class — and he hasn’t been nearly as good this year.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who works as an analyst for NFL Network, has been curious why that is the case. So he devoted his “Study Ball” film breakdown this week to the Patriots’ offense, asking the question, “Is the offense setting Mac back?”
One of Warner’s conclusions: “Things haven’t happened quick enough for him. It has forced him to overthink things, to get through things too quickly and make a lot of bad decisions with the football that he didn’t do nearly as much last year.”
Warner took a deep dive into the Patriots’ 33-26 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving, arguably Jones’ best game of the season (28-of-39, 382 yards, two touchdown passes, no interceptions). He raises questions about the Patriots’ offensive system and execution, saying: “It’s about timing and it’s about details, and that to me is what this offense is lacking more than anything else.”
JONES THRIVED AS a rookie under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who left after the 2021 season to become the Las Vegas Raiders‘ head coach. Jones started every game and finished 352-of-521 for 3,801 yards, with 22 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, “griddying” his way into a Pro Bowl appearance as an alternate.
Former quarterbacks like Hasselbeck liked what they saw, which is what has made this year surprising.
“I know Mac Jones can play. We saw it all last year,” Hasselbeck said.
🚨 MAC JONES GRIDDY ALERT 🚨
(via @nfl) pic.twitter.com/mha94V7jmO
— ESPN (@espn) February 6, 2022
To fill McDaniels’ void, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick tapped former NFL head coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, whose primary background in the NFL came on defense and special teams, respectively. Patricia calls in the plays to Jones and Judge is the quarterbacks coach, but Belichick has made it clear that the buck stops with him.
Belichick also oversaw a streamlining of the offense, which had grown in volume since his first year as head coach in 2000 and with Tom Brady under center for nearly two decades. One goal in doing so was to allow players to play faster.
But the Patriots have sunk to the bottom of the NFL in some key areas, such as in the red zone, where they rank 31st out of 32 teams in touchdown percentage (12 of 31). Only the Denver Broncos are worse. The Patriots are also 30th in interception percentage, 26th in sacks per pass play, 27th in first downs and 25th on third down.
Warner sees simplicity in the Patriots’ approach and wonders if it has negated one of Jones’ best assets.
“One of the things I loved about Mac last year is that he’s so good at processing information. Sometimes last year I thought he processed information too fast, meaning he got off certain reads too quickly because they hadn’t developed,” Warner told ESPN.com. “This year, I think they’ve kind of taken his superpower away because they’ve simplified everything.”
Jones is 162-of-234 for 1,768 yards, with six touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He missed three of the Patriots’ 11 games with a high left ankle sprain, and then returned for a Week 7 home loss to the Chicago Bears in which he started and was pulled after three series.
“I think you have to challenge him mentally. I think you have to be more creative with your offense, more creative in the red zone, to give him more opportunities,” Warner said. “I’ve wondered if that’s something that might be going on with Mac — is it hard for him to get excited and prepared when you have a game plan that is so simplistic?”
Warner explained that he experienced something similar as a player in his transition from the Rams to the Giants — having 220 pass plays available weekly to 60 in New York (many of which were the same).
“I had to fight every week the preparation part of it. That boredom. It challenged me in a way of getting better and really being excited about the game,” he said.
Hasselbeck saw signs of concern as early as the opening week of the season — a 20-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
“I said this at the start of our show this season, after the Miami game, I was very critical of what I saw schematically. It was surprising to me that it was the Patriots,” he said. “It feels like they’re learning on the fly offensively.”
One thing Hasselbeck believes has been missing too often is a quick checkdown to get Jones out of trouble. As a result, he thinks Jones has been forced to take unnecessary sacks.
“That is a real big thing to me. I think one of the hidden things about Tom Brady, one of the things he always did well, is incorporated the running backs into the passing game — whether it was checkdown, or they were the first read, or whatever. The Patriots started out this season and they really did not do that. I just think they’re getting there [now].”
Hasselbeck pointed to a 40-yard fourth-quarter screen pass to running back Rhamondre Stevenson last week as a sign of possible optimism.
TEAMMATES HAVE TAKEN note of how Jones has handled himself throughout a turbulent season. At one point during the loss to the Bears, the game when Jones returned from the ankle injury, home fans chanted for backup Bailey Zappe to replace him.
“It wasn’t as easy for him this year. He had a rough patch. People looked down on him for a second, but he stayed the same guy the whole way through in the locker room,” receiver Jakobi Meyers said. “Just seeing that resilience to him, the respect has grown.”
“This year has been tough at times, just going through an injury, battling his way back,” added veteran tight end Hunter Henry. “The leader he is; we just continue to ride him. … I’m glad he’s our quarterback.”
Patricia, the offensive play-caller, said Jones has impressed him as well.
“I think he matures every single week with the way he sees the game, the way he plays the game, and the way he understands from a team standpoint how we need to play a game each week,” he said.
“He’s very smart. He’s got great ideas. He really helps everything, from all the different positions, pull it all together. I appreciate being able to be around him and work with someone like that, who puts so much into it.”
While Patricia was reluctant to call Jones’ performance last week a breakthrough, in part because it came in a loss, there have been notable signs of improvement of late.
Jones, who highlighted the “effort and toughness” of the offense, hasn’t thrown an interception in his last three games after having at least one in each of his first five games this season. Hasselbeck also thought Jones expertly handled some snap issues from center against the Vikings, which can be “like eating a bowl of cereal with your opposite hand.”
As for where things go from here, Hasselbeck said one reason for optimism is Belichick’s track record. He points to a play he calls “Patriot pass” — a hard run action with a pulling guard before the quarterback looks down the field — as something they can build around.
“This coaching staff is very intelligent, even though they don’t have a ton of experience seeing things through the quarterback lens, which I believe is really important,” he said. “They’re still in the playoff hunt and maybe they can put it together. You just have to find something to hang your hat on.”
Hasselbeck and Warner still believe that Jones is a promising quarterback to build around.
“No doubt. He’s not the problem,” Hasselbeck said.
“I have to think what I saw last year is more of who Mac Jones is,” Warner added. “I think there are a lot of things going on this year that it’s hard for me to dive in and judge Mac on what I’ve seen. I’m not going to do it, because I think there are a number of issues in their offense, they’re not playing to his strengths.
“So I still hold on to what I saw last year. Somehow they have to get him back to that, to challenge him in a way that his greatest strengths come out. I don’t think they’re doing that right now — and with that, they’re not getting the same quarterback.”