In Week 1, it was easy to explain away Mac Jones’ underwhelming performance against the Miami Dolphins.
The Patriots did an awful job of protecting their franchise quarterback, and the weapons around Jones didn’t play great, either. Kendrick Bourne basically didn’t play at all, likely due to reported friction with New England’s coaching staff. Plus, the entire operation was sloppy and disjointed for the Patriots, including Matt Patricia’s debut as offensive play-caller. After the season-opening loss, it was fair to say Jones’ struggles were a product of his environment, which was constructed over the course of an underwhelming summer in Foxboro.
But there are no such excuses for how Jones played in last Sunday’s victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The second-year quarterback completed 21-of-35 passes for 252 yards and one touchdown to go along with one interception. As pointed out by Boston Sports Journal’s Greg Bedard, Jones compiled a completion percentage above expectation of minus-5.8 (plus-0.3 in Week 1), indicating he left too many plays on the field. It was the third-worst mark of his career. As for Jones’ Pro Football Focus score, he earned the fourth-worst grade of his career (50.7) and through two weeks is ranked 25th among all quarterbacks after finishing 12th in 2021.
But forget the stats. Jones just looks worse than he did during his rookie campaign. A particularly ugly sequence late in the first quarter of the Steelers game illustrates the point.
After the Patriots picked off Mitch Trubisky to get the ball at their own 39-yard line, Patricia called a play-action pass designed to get receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey open downfield. It worked perfectly, as Pittsburgh’s linebackers bit on the fake — New England barely ran any play-action over its first two games — and Humphrey was wide open down the field. For the most part, the protection in front of Jones was fine. However, Jones scrambled to his left and forced an off-balance incomplete throw to Rhamondre Stevenson.
Just look at how open Humphrey (No. 83) was:
That could’ve been a 50-yard gain — if not a touchdown.
After Stevenson ran for five yards on second down, the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-5 near midfield. Jones then uncorked a deep ball for DeVante Parker, who had a step on linebacker Robert Spillane. In that sense, New England got the matchup it wanted.
But Jones failed to realize that ball-hawk safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was lurking and made an ill-advised throw into double coverage. Fitzpatrick came up with the pick and the Patriots failed to capitalize on Pittsburgh’s turnover.
Yes, there was a free rusher barreling down on Jones, who ultimately threw off his back foot. But he had plenty of time before the rush arrived to throw either underneath to Nelson Agholor or over the middle to Jakobi Meyers. Both players were open.
And there are plenty of similar examples from the first two games. Among the more egregious occurred during the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh, with Jones forcing a third-down throw to Jonnu Smith despite Meyers being wide open in the flat.
The play easily would’ve gone for a first down.
Again, the play-calling didn’t fail Jones in this game. And you could say the same about the much-improved offensive line, which probably received a boost from assistant coach Billy Yates spending the entire game on the sideline instead of starting it up in the booth.
If you’re a Patriots fan, you have to hope that Jones simply is dealing with the lingering effects of justifiably not trusting his coaching and offensive line. If the O-line continues to improve in the coming weeks and Patricia continues to find his way as a play-caller, there’s no reason why Jones can’t return to the level we saw him at last season — if not higher. He remains a tough, talented quarterback.
That said, Jones insists everything is fine. When asked Wednesday about putting out “bad tape” and whether there are any plays he wants back, the Patriots quarterback directed the focus toward wins and losses.
“There’s not really any bad tape,” he said. “I think there’s things that you want to have back but if you win the game, you can sit there and complain about plays you wish you had back, but at the end of the day, you won, and that’s what’s important. It’s not about always winning super pretty all the time; it’s about winning. So, that’s all I care about, all I’ve ever cared about. All the other stuff takes care of itself. Obviously, like I said, you want to put good plays stacked on top of each other and you need to have more consistency with that, but the really bad plays are coming down to a bit more slim. That’s the goal and you can do that each week and then improve. The wins will come and that’s the only thing that matters.”
Fair enough. But what about seeing the field? Because, to this point, it sure doesn’t look as if Jones is seeing the field as clearly as he was in 2021.
“Obviously, that’s your goal as the quarterback, it’s see what the defense does and react to it,” Jones said after practice. “I’ve always done that, when the ball is snapped, let go of everything and go out there and let it rip. I don’t really think I’m overthinking at all.”
That part is believable, as Jones never has lacked confidence in himself, even his faith in the players and coaches around him appears iffy. Still, at the end of the day, he knows he needs to be much better.
“I think every offense is different and we have really good skill players,” Jones said. “They’ve done a good job, and like you said, the players are really good in the NFL, so it’s not going to be a wide-open play every time, but when it is, I need to hit them. There’s a few of those I wish I could have hit last week and that?s gone now, so all you can do is try and hit the ones this week. They’ve done a good job getting open.”
Is it time to push the panic button on Mac Jones? Of course not. Even if the Patriots finish with a losing record this season, it’s hard to envision Jones looking bad enough to warrant chatter about New England targeting a replacement.
(And, yes, we know Lamar Jackson is set to be a free agent after this season.)
But Jones must improve, and in a hurry. The Patriots’ margin for error this season is perilously slim, and they can ill afford for their quarterback to cost them winnable games — as Jones nearly did last Sunday.