ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Shortly after the Patriots’ season ended Sunday with defeat in Buffalo, Mac Jones was asked whether he was satisfied with the progress he made as a second-year pro.
His response was swift and definitive.
“No,” the New England quarterback replied, as he began to digest the 35-23 loss to the Bills that eliminated his team from playoff contention.
How could he be?
A year ago, Jones was runner-up for Offensive Rookie of the Year, a Pro Bowl alternate and the QB for a team that won 10 games, made the playoffs and ranked in or around the top 10 in most offensive metrics.
This season, the Patriots finished 8-9, missed the postseason and sharply regressed on offense despite returning nearly every 2021 contributor. Jones, hamstrung by hapless coaching and playing behind an injury-depleted offensive line, did not take the anticipated Year 2 leap, entering Week 18 ranked 25th in the NFL in passer rating and 31st in QBR, ahead of only Davis Mills and Baker Mayfield.
The first half of his sophomore season was defined by a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for three games and most of a fourth; the back half by his increasingly frequent outbursts and expletives as New England’s offense searched in vain for any semblance of consistency.
A measure of that finally came Sunday.
Armed with an almost-full arsenal of weapons for the first time in weeks, Jones spearheaded one of the Patriots’ best offensive efforts of the season against Buffalo, leading three touchdown drives that spanned eight or more plays and 70-plus yards. The Patriots, ranked dead last in the NFL in red-zone offense, scored on their first two trips inside the 20-yard line against the Bills’ top-ranked red-zone defense.
But Jones tossed three interceptions after halftime — including one at the 1-yard line and another in the end zone — and the Patriots mustered just 10 second-half points. Even an improved offensive effort wasn’t enough to overcome a disastrous showing on special teams (two kick-return touchdowns by Nyheim Hines) and a few moments of Josh Allen brilliance (a 42-yard touchdown pass to John Brown and a 49-yarder to Stefon Diggs) in their ill-fated upset bid.
Since drafting Jones, the Patriots have yet to win a game when the opponent scores at least 25 points. They’ve also closed out each of his first two seasons by losing three of their final four games.
“Obviously, you look at each year in your football life, and you want to get better as a player, and I did,” said Jones, who completed 26 of 40 passes for 243 yards in the loss and played well enough down the stretch that his job should not be in jeopardy this offseason.
“I learned a lot, and I think a lot of guys on our team learned a lot, but it was not the progress that any of us wanted to make. It starts with me, and not to talk about last year or anything, but it’s the same story. Towards the end of the season, we have to play better. We have to win this game to get a chance to move on, and that’s how every season is going to be in the NFL.”
To avoid suffering the same fate again in 2023, the Patriots must prioritize fixing their offense this offseason, starting from the top down. Bill Belichick’s controversial decision to have Matt Patricia call plays and Joe Judge coach quarterbacks was an abject failure. He needs to bring in an experienced, capable offensive mind to guide this group and recenter Jones’ development.
Former Patriots offensive coordinator/QBs coach Bill O’Brien stands out as an obvious choice to fill both roles, as his contract at Alabama is up and he reportedly is eyeing a return to the NFL. But with other teams potentially interested in O’Brien, as well, New England would need to move quickly on that hire.
A recent report from Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer also suggested team owner Robert Kraft– who said before the season that he wanted and expected playoff victories in 2022 — could call for sweeping changes to the Patriots’ offensive staff.
Beyond coaching changes, the Patriots also must improve their offensive tackle depth and should try hard to acquire a true No. 1 receiver — an asset nearly every NFL contender possesses. The only Patriots wideouts currently under contract for 2023 are DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne and underwhelming second-round draft pick Tyquan Thornton, with perennial top target Jakobi Meyers headlining their list of impending free agents.
The Patriots’ offensive struggles wasted a banner season by their defense, which scored seven touchdowns and entered Sunday ranked sixth in points allowed and third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
“I think we have a great group, and we all fought hard for each other,” Jones said. “It’s just conversations that will be had. It’s not important right now. I think everybody put everything they had on the line, so that’s important. We played for the Patriot on the front of our jerseys and the name on the back, and that’s all you can ask.
“At the end of the day, you can control your effort, and that’s all you can control. Tough year, tough ending, but proud of the guys, and I’m really blessed to have gone through a year like this. Honestly, just looking forward to improving as a football player.”