Mac Jones has relied mostly on short, easy passes through the first two games of his New England Patriots career. But his offensive coordinator insisted he’s not taking a training-wheels approach with his rookie quarterback.
“I trust him completely,” Josh McDaniels said Tuesday in a video conference. “… Believe me, there’s not a whole lot we’re holding back for him.”
Jones ranks among the NFL’s most accurate quarterbacks this season (sixth in completion percentage, fourth in adjusted completion percentage) and has yet to turn the ball over. He’s decisively outplayed fellow 2021 first-rounders Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, who have endured early growing pains with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets, respectively.
The offense Jones has operated, though, has been a conservative one. Only Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton have lower average-depth-of-target marks than Jones, meaning the Patriots rookie is throwing shorter passes than almost any other NFL QB. Jones also ranks 24th among qualified signal-callers in yards per attempt (6.8).
In Sunday’s 25-6 win over Wilson’s Jets, Jones attempted just four passes that traveled more than 15 yards downfield, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He had twice as many (eight) to targets at or behind the line of scrimmage. His three pass attempts inside New York’s 25-yard line — excluding an intentional grounding — traveled -5, 3 and -1 yards in the air.
McDaniels spent much of his Tuesday call addressing the Patriots’ lack of a vertical passing attack. In essence, he said, it boils down to a question of “risk versus reward.”
“I think it’s important to have the ability to throw the ball vertically (and) horizontally in every game, and most pass patterns have that element available to them,” McDaniels explained. “I think there’s a part of that process which involves, certainly decision-making — whether you want to do everything you can to try to force it down the field where there’s times where you could do that or call plays that have an option to throw the ball down the field vertically and, if the defense were to play specific coverages that take those elements away, you then make the decision to do something else with the ball.
“Certainly, you want to be able to attack all areas of the field and force the defense to defend everything, and we’ll continue to try to work hard at doing that. Again, I know I can do more in that area to give us chances. I think there’s also a balance of the timing of the game, the score, the situation itself. You’re weighing a bit of risk versus reward, etc. So I think there are a lot of factors there, but the short answer to your question is yes, it’s important to have the ability to throw the ball to all levels and make them defend everything, which certainly would open up other things for you underneath, possibly. But at the same time, I think it’s an important balance between just closing your eyes and heaving it deep when it’s really not there. … You have to make smart decisions about that if you’re going to do it.”
Wilson made several such deep heaves on Sunday. He finished with four interceptions, and his team scored six points.
But while the Jets’ rookie-led offense struggled, their defense did succeed in hassling Jones, especially in the first half. Miami’s did the same in Week 1, though Jones seemed to handle the rush better in that game.
With right tackle Trent Brown playing just seven snaps this season and left tackle Isaiah Wynn struggling, the Patriots’ offensive line hasn’t been able to consistently keep Jones upright. McDaniels said that’s also contributed to the team’s lack of deep shots.
“I think protection is one of the discussions you have to be aware of,” McDaniels explained. “Blitz — is there a lot of pressure coming at you? Can you hold the ball? Are you able to do things with certain protections to add time to your pocket? And (Jones) has to deal with all of those. … That’s been the case for every quarterback who’s ever played. I think this was a very aggressive front that we saw in New York, certainly. They did a good job of trying to get up the field and getting into the middle of the pocket some, which certainly we can improve in that are, as well. And then we talked last week about how much pressure Miami brought (in Week 1) and so on and so forth. So I think it’s a combination of all of those things.
“You can call as many as you want. It doesn’t mean the ball is going to go there, because the defense certainly has a vote in where the ball is going to end up going, and then our execution across the board — the read from the quarterback’s perspective, was the coverage applicable for us to take a shot or throw it down the field or throw it intermediate? The execution of the protection, the execution of the blitz pickup, the route — did we run the route the right way? Did we get open down the field? Did we give ourselves an opportunity? So I think there’s a lot of things that go into that. You want to be able to test those areas of the field as you move forward, but I also want him to make smart decisions, I want him to protect the football, and I want him to be aggressive when it’s time to be aggressive.”
McDaniels noted Jones has attacked downfield at times this season, hitting Nelson Agholor with a pair of 20-yard strikes in Week 1 and connecting with James White (against Miami) and Jakobi Meyers (against New York) on over-the-shoulder vertical routes. He also fired a possibly ill-advised deep ball into double coverage Sunday that was nearly intercepted but wiped away by a defensive offsides penalty.
“It’s not like he’s not (throwing downfield),” McDaniels said. “It’s just there’s certain times when it’s the right time to do it and certain times where it’s not. And I’ve got to continue to work hard myself to try to provide our offense with opportunities to do that if it presents itself.”
But QB has passed up more explosive plays for safer ones, too, most notably on his trick-play completion to Jonnu Smith on Sunday. Jones had Agholor wide open for a touchdown and wasn’t facing a heavy pass rush, but he chose the easier completion to Smith underneath.
After the game, Jones said he “can push the ball down the field more.”
“But at the end of the day, it’s about moving the ball and taking what the defense gives you,” he added Monday on WEEI’s “Merloni and Fauria.” “If they give you the deep shot, then take it. But if they give you the short, then take the short. It’s kind of what the defense is doing, really.”