FOXBORO, Mass. — What’s the worst possible outcome for a pass attempt that doesn’t result in a turnover or points for the other team?
Mac Jones came close on his first career dropback.
After starting the opening drive of his regular-season NFL debut with four consecutive handoffs, the New England Patriots rookie quarterback faced immediate pressure off the edge from Miami Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones, who’d shot past motioning tight end Jonnu Smith. Jones appeared to panic, spiking the ball backward in Smith’s direction as Jones, linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins bore down on him.
A forward spike is an incompletion. A backward one? That’s a fumble. Fortunately for the Patriots, Smith pounced on the ball, limiting the damage to a 13-yard loss.
And rather than a harbinger of more first-game jitters, that proved to be but an early speedbump in an otherwise impressive outing for the first-round draft pick.
Jones, who beat out Cam Newton for the starting job in training camp, completed 29 of 39 passes for 281 yards and one touchdown with no turnovers as the Patriots fell to the Dolphins 17-16 in Sunday’s season opener at Gillette Stadium.
Jones’ touchdown pass capped a seven-play, 54-yard drive that was kept alive by an Elandon Roberts roughing-the-passer penalty. Two plays later, Jones absorbed another hit from Roberts as he fired a 7-yard scoring strike to Agholor.
Some of Jones’ best moments in his first taste of regular-season NFL action came while he was under duress — and he was under duress a lot against Brian Flores’ Dolphins defense.
There was his 16-yard completion to tight end Hunter Henry. His scramble-drill hookup with Kendrick Bourne that was wiped out by a holding penalty. His perfectly placed pass down the middle to Jakobi Meyers that was broken up by former Patriot Jason McCourty. His late floater to Meyers that moved the chains on third-and-5. This dart to Agholor:
All of those plays featured quarterback hits or heavy pressure, of which Jones faced more than the Patriots would have preferred. (Losing starting right tackle Trent Brown after one series didn’t help matters. His replacement, Justin Herron, struggled and eventually was benched for late-summer pickup Yasir Durant.)
New England’s offensive line did give Jones a clean pocket on his prettiest pass of the day: a 26-yard over-the-shoulder completion to running back James White on third-and-11.
The Patriots went 11-for-16 on third down, with seven of those conversions coming on Jones completions. Jones led three 14-play, 70-plus-yard drives, but each resulted in only a Nick Folk field goal.
Trailing by one midway through the fourth quarter, Jones drove the Patriots into the red zone before Damien Harris fumbled on the 11-yard line. Miami recovered and drained the remaining clock. It was one of four fumbles in the game for the Patriots (two lost), who also exhibited uncharacteristically poor discipline with eight penalties for 84 yards.
Jones completed passes to eight different receivers — including five each to Smith and Agholor and six apiece to White and Meyers — and finished with a passer rating of 102.6. He and the Patriots will look to take a step forward next Sunday against the New York Jets.