The Patriots’ uncomfortable reality: Mac Jones might not be the guy

The conversation was brief. There wasn’t a lot that needed to be said. Amid the worst loss of his career in Dallas on Sunday, Bill Belichick told Mac Jones that the quarterback was done for the day. The New England Patriots were turning to Bailey Zappe.

Jones sat on the bench without his helmet. He stared aimlessly toward the field, the look of a shell-shocked quarterback who’d just thrown two terrible interceptions, who’d fumbled on a play that led to a Dallas Cowboys touchdown, who suddenly was being shelved. Here he was, the first-round pick brought to New England to continue a standard of success started by Tom Brady, and stuck now in this surreal scene.


Jones to remain Pats QB1 after benching

This wasn’t how the season was supposed to go — or at least how the Patriots envisioned it would go.

Belichick met with Jones this summer. The two agreed it was best to move on from the debacle of a year ago when Belichick found Jones’ on-field outbursts unbecoming and Jones found the coaching situation with Matt Patricia ineffective.

The result was Jones being given both more say in the offense and a proven offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien. The idea was that would return Jones to the level of success his 2021 rookie season yielded.

But four games into his third season, the Patriots are already being confronted with an uncomfortable reality: Mac Jones doesn’t look like the guy. He may not be able to build on the promise of that first season, at least not here, not with this setup. He may just be the quarterback he played like in 2022. Depending on how the rest of the season plays out, the Patriots may have to do another reset and go after a third new starting quarterback in five years as the post-Brady situation drags them toward NFL mediocrity.

The idea that Jones was suddenly going to return to being an above-average quarterback once he was freed from the clutches of Patricia just hasn’t come to fruition. Four games into this season, Jones ranks 27th among quarterbacks in yards per pass, 27th in expected points added per play and 27th in completion percentage over expected. The numbers suggest there’s only a small handful of quarterbacks who have been worse (think Zach Wilson, Kenny Pickett and Desmond Ridder).

What’s especially troubling is that the Patriots never thought they would need Jones to play like a top-10 quarterback this season to be successful. They thought they had a team that was stout on defense and could run the ball and that they’d only need Jones to make a couple of important throws each game. Other than that, he could take care of the ball and make sure the Patriots get into the right play. Coaches and staffers praise Jones’ preparation and football mind. They thought that would be enough.

Instead, Jones was running around the field at AT&T Stadium, launching throws across his body like Patrick Mahomes without the arm strength.

That prompted Belichick to admit the coaches will discuss potentially giving Zappe more reps with the starters this week.

“I doubt anything would change significantly,” Belichick said Monday morning about the starting quarterback reps. “But we’ll talk about that. I don’t know. We haven’t gotten to that point yet.”

Of course, it must be noted that Jones is far from the only problem with the offense.

The running game that was supposed to lead the offensive charge has been dreadful. It ranks 28th in the league in yards per carry. The offensive line was dinged up at the start of the season and has yet to open the kinds of holes Rhamondre Stevenson ran through last season on the way to 1,040 rushing yards.

The wide receivers have struggled to get open. There are 93 NFL receivers with 10 or more catches this season. Here’s where New England’s top three options (based on playing time) rank in yards per route: 57th (Kendrick Bourne), 83rd (DeVante Parker) and 87th (JuJu Smith-Schuster). For what it’s worth, rookie Demario Douglas ranks 21st despite the coaching staff’s unwillingness to give him more snaps.

And the play calling from O’Brien hasn’t been the rejuvenating factor it was expected to be. The Patriots were running plays out of 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends and one receiver) in the second half, far from what you’d want while trying to mount a comeback. The Patriots also rank 28th in early down play-action usage, ignoring a tactic at which Jones thrives.

All of that deserves scrutiny. But quarterback is the most important position in sports. You can’t win in the NFL with poor quarterback play, and that’s what the Patriots have gotten from Jones this season.

Teams in the modern game either win with a great quarterback who can lift up mediocre receivers (see: Chiefs, Kansas City) or a slightly above-average quarterback with great receivers (see: Dolphins, Miami). But Belichick has compiled a roster with neither of those. The Patriots have below-average receivers and a below-average quarterback.

“Yeah, I think we have pretty good talent on offense,” Belichick countered during his WEEI appearance Monday even though the evidence indicates otherwise. “We just haven’t been able to find a consistent groove with it.”

For his part, Jones took an optimistic approach after the game, saying one bad game — his worst game — wasn’t going to change him. “I’m going to take the positive route the best I can, and hopefully it brings the best out of me,” the 25-year-old said.

Perhaps that leads to more success against the New Orleans Saints this weekend, and maybe the Patriots can talk themselves into something resembling momentum by the time Halloween arrives.

But on the first day of October, an uncomfortable reality has begun to set in for the Patriots. The last 20 games of evidence indicate the Patriots may need to go back to the drawing board this offseason as they launch another search for a new quarterback.

(Photo: Michael Ainsworth / Associated Press)

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