Jones, after a promising rookie year, has regressed to near the bottom of the NFL rankings in just about every category this season. What happened?
Is Mac Jones still the fair-haired boy in Foxborough? Is he the guy who should be driving the Patriots' train for the next 10 years or so? If so, the team should commit itself to him and make no bones about it. If not, they should cut their losses and start a new search for their next savior as soon as possible.
This is a decision to be made, not by you or me, or anyone other than the high priest of pigskins in these parts, the Most Honorable Bill Belichick. That doesn't mean we can't second-guess him, of course. Which, you can be sure, we will.
Jones, after a promising rookie year, has regressed to near the bottom of the NFL rankings in just about every category this season. What happened? He seems to be an earnest young man who keeps himself in excellent physical shape. He missed several games this season with a high ankle sprain, a relatively serious, but not career threatening, injury. How is it, then, that he appears to be less talented than he was last year? Could it have anything to do with the coaching? Last season, the Patriots quarterbacks came under the purview of long-time offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is now (though no one knows for how long) the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. He was assisted by Bo Hardegree, who had several years of success as quarterbacks coach with the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. Last season, under Hardegree's guidance, Jones led all rookie quarterbacks in the NFL with 22 touchdowns and 3,801 yards gained. His completion percentage of 67.6 was the second best for a rookie in NFL history. When McDaniels became the head man at Las Vegas, he took Hardegree with him. It's been downhill for Jones ever since.
Replacing Hardegree as quarterbacks coach is Joe Judge, who has never coached quarterbacks before. He never played in the NFL, but he played on special teams as an undergraduate at Mississippi State. He had been a quarterback in high school. So what coaching advice can he impart to a quarterback facing a blitz from an elite NFL defensive unit? "This is what we did in the 12th grade back in Lansdale, Pennsylvania?" I don't think so. Perhaps Judge's boss, the offensive coordinator, could fill in with some wise words, but the Patriots don't have an offensive coordinator this year. McDaniels was never replaced when he left in 2021 for Las Vegas.
If there is a de facto offensive coordinator it is probably Matt Patricia, a defensive specialist who coaches the porous offensive line and calls the offensive plays, which he has never done before. Speaking of offensive plays, Patriots players have been complaining about opposition players calling out to each other what their (the Patriots') plays are before they are even run. Belichick has confirmed that it has been happening this year, which means that his team is either inadvertently tipping them or they are so obvious that there is absolutely no surprise element to them. I'm not an expert on football strategy, but I think it's probably a pretty good idea to keep the other side's defense guessing about which plays you're going to run.
Obviously, a case can be made for the argument that Jones has been ill-served by the coaching he has received this year. This is not to say that Judge and Patricia aren't smart guys and respected football men. They are; but they seem to have been put in coaching positions that are not their strength; it shows. The Patriots' offense has not performed well this year. They can thank their lucky stars that their defense has been excellent; it's kept them afloat. Both men have served as head coaches in the NFL, though it was not a happy experience for either. They both lost more than two thirds of their games. Judge won 10 and lost 23 in two seasons at the helm of the New York Giants, and Patricia went 13-29-1 in three years with the-then dreadful Detroit Lions.
That's all in the past, and soon this year will be in the past, too. Belichick must decide during the coming off-season whether or not Mac Jones is the man to build his offense around for the next decade or more. If not, he should move on, sooner rather than later. Jones is under contract for two more years, but at an annual salary of about 4 million a year that shouldn't be a deterrent to trades. If he is not deemed to have the potential to lead a Super Bowl-challenging team, they should get out now while he still has some trade value.
In any case, Jones is not going to be the next Tom Brady. Neither is anyone else, just as there has never been another Bill Russell in basketball, or another Bobby Orr in hockey, or Ted Williams in baseball, there won't be another Tom Brady in football. Someone might, and probably will, break his records someday, but nobody will dominate his sport the way Brady has. It's been more than half a century since Russell, Orr, and Williams had their heydays, and you can bet that in the year 2072, we'll still be looking -- in vain -- for the next Tom Brady. Will we also be looking for the next Mac Jones?
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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