FOXBORO, Mass. — Since the moment Mac Jones joined the New England Patriots, he’s had Tom Brady’s shadow hanging over him. This week, that shadow became a thundercloud, with talk of Brady’s long-awaited return dominating headlines and conversation throughout the region.
On Sunday night, Jones went toe-to-toe with that shadow — the quarterback against whom he’ll be compared for the rest of his career. And he nearly won.
Playing in the biggest regular-season game in NFL history, Jones delivered perhaps the most impressive performance of his young NFL career, completing 31 of 40 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in a 19-17 loss to Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium.
A signature upset victory proved elusive — Nick Folk’s 56-yard field-goal try with less than a minute remaining clanged off the left upright — but it was a statement outing from the Patriots’ first-round draft pick, who continues to look like the right choice to lead this franchise in the post-Brady era.
“He’s ready for everything that’s come his way,” wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said after the game. “He’s improving in that direction. You don’t want to see it go backwards, and it’s not going that way. Football is football, you don’t know how it’s going to go, but the way he’s handling situations like this, playing the Jets or whoever it may be, he’s the same quarterback, the same kind of mindset.
“He looks like a baby Tom. That’s my opinion. It’s just good to see his growth, and hopefully he continues to grow that way.”
During one stretch Sunday night, Jones completed 19 consecutive passes, cutting up a Buccaneers secondary that was without two starting cornerbacks (Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean) and lost a third (Carlton Davis) late in the first half. That’s the longest completion streak by a rookie QB in 40 years, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Through his four NFL games, Jones boasts a completion rate of 70.0 percent, a new rookie record (minimum 100 attempts), per STATS. His touchdowns went to two of New England’s most important offseason additions: tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, neither of whom had found the end zone in the first three games.
“The kid’s dialed in, man,” Henry said. “He’s continuing to get better. He’s super poised. He handles himself tremendously, never is down, never is too up. He stays very even-keeled throughout the game, and that’s only going to continue to get better. I mean, that was a big-time game right there, and I feel like he handled himself like a vet, like he’s been there before. That’s just going to continue to grow. I’m proud of how he played, how he communicated and how he executed out there.”
Jones mostly targeted receivers near or behind the line of scrimmage — and had some ball-placement issues on short passes to Jakobi Meyers — but had success attacking the intermediate area of the field, especially on throws to Bourne. He went 6-for-8 on passes that traveled between 10 and 20 yards downfield, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
“He’s just relaxed, and that’s what you want to see,” said Bourne, who’s caught 11 passes on 13 targets for 154 yards and a touchdown over the last two games. “I said it last week: You don’t want to see him in there like he’s nervous or scared, and it’s not that. He’s saying the play call fluently and feeling confident. It sounds like he’s confident, and it looks like he’s confident when he goes through the plays.”
Seeing that from a rookie quarterback, Bourne said, instills “a lot” of confidence in his teammates.
“He shows us that he believes in us, whether we had a good play or a bad play,” the wideout said. “Mac is really good with that. Not treating somebody because he dropped the ball different or ran the wrong route. He had a, ‘Let’s go, next play’ type of mentality, and that’s what I’m really impressed with him. You’ve probably got some quarterback who won’t go to the guy anymore because he ran the wrong route, and he just doesn’t give off that energy. I respect that.”
Despite Jones’ promise, New England’s offense remains a work in progress. The Patriots have scored 16, 25, 13 and 17 points in their first four games and have lost three. They remedied their red-zone issues against the Bucs (two trips, two touchdowns), but turned the ball over twice, including Jones’ fourth interception of the season.
The Patriots relied almost exclusively on the passing game Sunday night, as their rushing attack generated a grand total of -1 yard on eight attempts.
Even with a stout defense that held Tampa’s Brady-led offense to a single touchdown, the Patriots will need to regularly score in the mid-20s in order to compete on a week-to-week basis. If they can’t, they won’t sniff the postseason.
“I think we executed well,” Jones said. “Obviously, not good enough to win but (offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) did a great job, and I think it was good for us to learn that we didn’t put it all together, but we got close to putting it all together and playing a full game together. When we can do that, I think positive things will happen.
“(But) we can be 90 percent or 85 percent and you lose. We don’t really do moral victories. Those are always forgotten.”
There are problems that need fixing. But the Patriots know the quarterback position is not one of them.
“I think the best thing about it is we’re not thinking about it,” veteran safety Devin McCourty said. “We’re not worried about the kid. He’s been preparing. I mean, the guy’s in here late, he’s in here early every day. He’s one of the guys now.
“We don’t see him as a rookie. Honestly, we expect him to lead. We expect him to be our quarterback. And I think that speaks volumes about how far he’s grown since he’s been here. He has everybody’s trust in that locker room.”