FOXBORO, Mass. — There’s no clear answer as to who should return punts for the New England Patriots this Sunday in Denver. But it should not be Cyrus Jones.
Jones was their top draft pick this year, so the Patriots understandably have cut him a great deal of slack during his rookie season. There comes a point, however, when the need for reliability outweighs the desire to groom a young player.
Jones had his worst game as a pro Monday night — which, as anyone who watched his performance in New England’s Week 5 win over the Cleveland Browns knows, is saying something. The young cornerback’s inability to either field or avoid a punt deep in his own territory completely changed the course of the game, igniting a second-half Baltimore Ravens rally that ultimately fell just short in a 30-23 Patriots victory at Gillette Stadium.
Jones allowed a Sam Koch punt to bounce off his foot and then failed to pounce on it, giving Baltimore — which trailed 23-3 at the time — the ball at New England’s 5-yard line midway through the third quarter.
It was the fifth kick Jones had either muffed or fumbled this season, and it directly led to a Ravens touchdown, with Joe Flacco finding Darren Waller in the end zone two plays later. Jones nearly bungled another punt earlier in the game, narrowly evading a heat-seeking Koch kick in the final moments of the first half.
The Patriots have three games remaining in the regular season. They’ve yet to clinch a division title, a first-round playoff bye or home-field advantage. And while two of those three basically are foregone conclusions at this point, the Patriots found out the hard way last season how inconsistency in the return game can prove disastrous.
When Chris Harper muffed a punt on a snowy night in Mile High last November, he was waived the following day. Jones’ punishment should not be that severe — he was a second-round pick, after all — but his tenure as Patriots punt returner should be put on indefinite hiatus.
Make do with newcomer Griff Whalen, Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman until Danny Amendola is healthy enough to return from his ankle injury. Probably in that order, too, since Edelman is the Patriots’ most important offensive player right now outside of quarterback Tom Brady. An injury to him could sink their season.
It should be noted that Jones still appears to have the support of his teammates, as every player asked about the rookie’s struggles expressed confidence he would turn things around.
“It’s just growing pains,” Edelman said after the game. “It’s going to make him tougher.”
“I certainly don’t want to stand here and speak for him,” added Matthew Slater, who had a special-teams fumble of his own just minutes after Jones’. “I think that would be totally unfair. As I’ve said countless times, there’s a man with a lot of ability that has proven that ability. That’s just football sometimes. That’s the way things go. Let’s not just sit here and talk about him — I made a huge mistake myself.”
Jones declined to speak with reporters after the game, leaving Gillette Stadium minutes after the final whistle.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images