Friday, March 31 2023

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones demonstrated a set of proven assets in his rookie season. He had a strong sense of game management and sound decision-making. Those tools added up to a simple product: a quick processor and accurate passer. He would avoid losing games. And, when possible, he’d contribute to winning.

What happened to that guy?

So far this season, Jones has not boasted any of those same assets — not with the same level of consistency. He seems to struggle with situational football, as the Patriots offense sits at 20th in the NFL on third downs (39% conversion rate) and fourth-worst in red zone touchdown scoring at 46%. He is having issues with decision-making (seven interceptions). The product has been complicated: an under-confident processor who holds onto the ball too long.

That’s not what they wanted from their second-year quarterback.

Jones has taken a step backward in Year 2, rather than ascending. There were warning signs during training camp when New England replaced their former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels with a brain trust of Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. The supposed brain trust put the offense back through an evaluation period to simplify and streamline the system. But in hindsight, that felt like false advertising for an oversimplified and problematic playbook that’s simply not getting the job done.

It’s ironic that we called the Patriots’ trio of coaches a brain trust, because — as the Boston Herald’s Andrew Callahan pointed out — trust is probably the thing that’s most lacking in the Patriots offense. And brains? Well, I’m not going to go around knocking Bill Belichick’s intelligence. That would only make me look stupid, right?

Which non-Bills AFC East team feels best about itself?

The FOX NFL Kickoff crew discusses a number of teams at the season’s halfway point, debating which has the best case for optimism.

So far, however, Patricia’s game plans appear unimaginative. He has had a few bright spots, particularly in helping set up backup Bailey Zappe against some of the NFL’s worst defenses. But when it comes to setting up Jones for success against good teams, Patricia hasn’t looked brilliant. 

“He loves football,” Jones said of Patricia after the Patriots‘ win over the Colts. “He’s going to give it his all every day from 6:00 a.m. until whatever it is, 2:00 in the morning.”

But the film shows a predictable offense. Belichick admitted Tuesday that linebackers have been calling out the team’s plays before the Patriots run them. In Week 8, Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley appeared on film to know exactly the play that the Patriots were going to run.

“It was almost like he heard the play in the huddle. He was on it so fast,” Belichick said with a chuckle.

The Patriots had the same problem on Sunday against the Colts with Shaquille Leonard.

“We certainly want to try to prevent that,” Belichick said. “That’s what good defensive players do. They anticipate things.”

For New England, there’s a tremendous amount of reliance upon running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who has been — without a doubt — the team’s most reliable rushing threat. Even without a strong performance from the offensive line (the position group that Patricia is tasked with coaching), Stevenson has thrived.

Stevenson and receiver Jakobi Meyers have been the only players on the entire offense to elevate the play of those around them. Almost every other player is sinking in this offense.

Jones has not risen above the weak offensive-line play. He is jumpy in the pocket, as if preparing for its collapse at any moment. Then as it begins to collapse, he is clearly ready to allow the sack — rather than continue his streak of throwing interceptions. He is unwilling to risk dangerous throws, perhaps because of the support behind Zappe. More interceptions could mean Jones’ benching. But that’s leading to missed opportunities from week to week. Jones has chances to zip the ball downfield and trust his pass-catchers to make a play for him. But he hasn’t done it like he did last year.

It’s clear Jones is returning to the sideline feeling like he’s missing opportunities. But he’s also battling the process of staying disciplined and running through his progression as it’s coached.

“You walk off and are like, darn, I looked at the picture. Looked like it was there, but my eyes were starting where they were supposed to start. Sometimes that’s how it is. A lot of those sacks too, it’s just on me to get the ball out to the open guy,” Jones said Sunday.

New England has allowed the 10th-most sacks in the NFL (22) and it’s accelerating Jones through his progression at a clip that doesn’t seem sound. The Patriots have benched left guard Cole Strange and right tackle Isaiah Wynn — but New England hasn’t found a combination of offensive linemen that solves the pressure problems. It will be interesting to see which linemen end up starting in Week 11 after the team’s bye.

As a result of sacks and throwaways, we’ve seen a number of New England’s pass-catchers fade into nothingness from a production standpoint.

Tight end Hunter Henry (50 catches, 603 yards, nine touchdowns) and receiver Kendrick Bourne (55 catches, 800 yards, five touchdowns) seemed to be trending in the right direction in 2021. This year, Henry has 19 catches for 240 yards and one touchdown. Bourne has 14 catches for 167 yards and no touchdowns. That’s a major downturn from their best red-zone threat (Henry) and their best source of explosive plays (Bourne) from last year.

Receiver Nelson Agholor has been essentially out of the game plan for New England, which instead favors DeVante Parker. Parker has been the team’s best outside threat, but he has also been the intended target on four interceptions this year. Parker’s knee injury seemed to be an opportunity for second-round rookie Tyquan Thornton to step up. He has just one catch in each of the last three games.

It’s a systemic problem that is likely to leave the whole organization concerned about the team’s quarterback and offense. It’s not what you would have expected after a solid 2021 season. And there’s no simple fix.

It’s crazy to consider New England’s tenuous situation when compared to six months ago. At that point, the Patriots had to have been pleased about seemingly plucking the most advanced passer out of the 2021 draft class, even though they were picking at 15th overall. 

But it seems the high-upside selections of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields are beginning to develop. And Jones is backpedaling. New England has a bye week to figure out how to get Jones’ development moving in a forward trajectory. It will start with the offensive line and the coaching first. Jones won’t be able to turn around his season without those two groups doing their job at a higher level.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.

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Source: FOX Sports


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