The Patriots’ future rests in the soft palms of a boyish-looking 22-year-old.
Returning to regular contention, reclaiming their status as the NFL’s pre-eminent franchise and winning a seventh Super Bowl — all hopes belong to the kid.
So far, Mac Jones is holding tight.
Through four months, the rookie has successfully pushed Cam Newton for the starting quarterback job, despite the fact Bill Belichick declared Newton the starter moments after the NFL Draft. Around their position competition, Jones’ teammates have said all the right things about him. More to the point, their comments have extended beyond boilerplate Patriot responses.
(You know: he’s working hard, trying to improve and taking it day to day.)
Because as much as one can through a few dozen practices and some preseason games, Jones has proven worthy of higher praise.
“I think he can be special,” Patriots right tackle Trent Brown said. “There’s a lot going on for him right now. This is a different ballgame, and with Bill’s defense, there’s a lot of moving parts out there. He’s just got to settle down, and I think he’ll be all right.”
Of course, in a sport built on orchestrated violence, words matter little. Performance rules inside the lines on Sunday. To date, Jones has brought his on-field scouting report to life.
As a college prospect, he was billed as a highly accurate thrower who processed quickly and stood in the pocket against pressure, all vital traits at the pro level. But Jones also offered little outside of structure and off-platform, firing more often with a water-gun arm instead of the preferred cannon.
The quarterback the Patriots drafted in April is the one they’ve seen through late August. Jones has demonstrated appreciable improvement since OTAs and minicamp, firing fewer training-camp interceptions than Newton and delivering more pinpoint passes.
He operated from empty formations in his preseason debut against Washington, worked under center and in shotgun, with light and heavy personnel. He’s called audibles in joint practices, leading to a pair of touchdowns against the Eagles. Publicly and privately, the Patriots have been touting his IQ.
“He’s a real fast learner, you know?” Pats receiver Jakobi Meyers said. “This isn’t an easy offense to just jump into and be able to pick up and play — especially with a guy like Josh McDaniels, who is going to expect the best out of you every day you come here.
“The fact that Mac can go in, get yelled at, bounce back and come back and do the right thing, and not make the same mistakes twice, that’s something that’s really good to be a Patriot and have.”
In doing so, Jones has taken a defibrillator to the Patriots offensive system and shocked it back to life. In 2020, their playbook was stripped down to a power run game and a bare-bones passing attacking that relied heavily on play-action, screens and a couple of RPOs. The Pats want their full offense back.
Part of the reason the front office nudged Tom Brady out the door in the spring of 2020 is the organization’s strong sense of self-belief. What first made the Patriots the Patriots, they believe, is their culture, infrastructure and day-to-day secret sauce; the residue of which is an arrogance former assistants usually carry upon leaving the team to head other franchises and often fail.
Specific to the offense, the Pats passing attack is built on optionality; the idea it can overcome any coverage if quarterback and receiver simultaneously identify the defense’s soft spot and exploit it. The sooner Jones can master it, the sooner the down-to-down advantage the Patriots enjoyed with Brady will resurface. Jones is working at it.
“I mean, it’s all day long. It’s great,” Jones said of studying football in Foxboro. “It’s from early in the morning to late at night, and you’ve got to do it again the next day. So all of us, we’re here, and we’re trying to get better, so it starts early here and ends late. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
McDaniels has often been hands-on with Jones in practice. Bill Belichick has chimed in, too, to hammer home certain details.
During one training camp practice on Aug. 5, Belichick was spotted taking Jones aside after a completed tight end screen to Hunter Henry in live team drills. By all accounts, the play had been successful. Not so.
“We were just talking about some fundamental stuff with the throw, how you have to lead the receiver whatever throw it is, and give them a chance to run with the ball,” Jones explained. “It’s something I have to work on. On any route, you want to give them a catchable ball, regardless of the play. And, just going back, and working on your fundamentals, so getting those extra reps, whatever type of play it is.”
Patriots defensive players see the details and tirelessness driving Jones, too.
Said linebacker and defensive stalwart Dont’a Hightower: “He’s a sponge. He’s a smart kid, makes good throws and good decisions, and hopefully he’s got Cam and Josh and all those guys to lean on. Again, he’s one of those guys who’s going to make the team better, and make that room better.”
The question is how soon the team’s present will cede to its future. Will Mac Jones be ready as a rookie? If and when the transition is made, his teammates seem ready to embrace him, despite their almost universal love for Newton.
“Mac, man, a hell of a guy. You know, great energy, just bringing life to the locker room. Always laughing. Smile on his face. Loves football, you know what I mean?” said tight end Jonnu Smith. “You couldn’t ask for a better quarterback.”
Many outsiders have circled Week 5 as a potential debut for the rookie. The Patriots are scheduled to travel to Houston that Sunday, after games against the Dolphins, Jets, Saints and Bucs, a group that boasts three top-10 run defenses from last season. While defensive performance often doesn’t correlate year to year, facing merely above-average run defenses will bode poorly for the Pats offense assimilating an entirely new group of pass-catchers.
Tight end Hunter Henry and new No. 1 wideout Nelson Agholor both missed several training camp practices and a preseason game. Jonnu Smith sat out briefly with an ankle sprain. Kendrick Bourne has ridden a roller-coaster summer.
Despite the constant turnover, Jones confirmed he’s been learning the offense quickly.
“I mean, I think so,” he said. “I try to put time into it. Whatever I can do to try and make it easier, I think that’s what everyone does. You’ve got to study it, to learn it. It’s just like school. You gotta study hard for the test, so as long as you’re putting in the work, usually it’s fine.”
Except fine isn’t frequently tolerated in Foxboro. It’s greatness or bust.
That’s what the Patriots want. That’s what Jones seeks.
Soon enough, it will be time to see if their future together can look a lot like the team’s recent past, when another fresh-faced young quarterback took the reins 20 years ago. Whenever that time comes, greatness or bust will again be up to the kid.