Commentary

What it means that Mac Jones almost outdueled Tom Brady in the Patriots’ loss

Jones looked like the better quarterback in his "duel" with Brady on Sunday. But how much of a moral victory can Patriots fans really take from that?

Mac Jones Patriots
Mac Jones reacts against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

As Mac Jones said after Sunday’s deflating loss to Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in primetime, he’s not really into the concept of “moral victories.”

The weight of the Patriots’ 1-3 start seemed to fall on the rookie as he sat with his head down on the New England bench after Nick Folk’s go-ahead, 56-yard field goal clanged off the left upright at Gillette Stadium like a death knell to his team’s chance of winning the game.

He’s not used to losing this much. He certainly didn’t go 1-3 at any point at Alabama.

But if there’s a silver lining to what the Patriots have gone through this season, it’s this: Jones continues to prove he belongs in the NFL every time he steps on the field. Sunday night, he did it against a Buccaneers team led by the greatest quarterback of all time — the man he’s essentially the true heir to in New England.

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Aside from one rough interception, Jones definitively outplayed Brady on Sunday night, finishing an efficient and effective 30-of-41 passing for 275 yards with two touchdowns and the aforementioned pick.

He overcame mistakes by himself and others, a non-existent running game, and another barrage of body shots (four sacks, 12 quarterback hits) that have become all too common.

All the while, he kept putting the ball on the money and consistently making solid reads against a Tampa Bay defense that blitzed him on about 48 percent of his dropbacks, according to NextGen Stats.

“I feel like he’s gonna be a good quarterback in this league,” said Bucs linebacker Devin White of Jones. “We hit him a lot of times and he stayed in the scheme and moved the ball for them when he had to move the ball for them.”

Plus, the rookie first-round pick did all that in his very first primetime game, which just happened to be the one no one in the NFL could stop talking about from the moment it appeared on the schedule this summer. His poise and ability to keep fighting against stiff odds continues to impress as does his apparent readiness to run the Patriots offense the way Bill Belichick and Co. want it run.

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The question is: how much can we put stock into that given where the Patriots are right now?

Mac Jones stays who he is.

The moment the Patriots decided to go with Jones over Cam Newton, the end result of the 2021 season became less important than the journey itself, especially in regards to the rookie’s development.

That doesn’t mean the Patriots don’t expect to win with this roster. They certainly do. But they also made it clear they’d suffer through some tough stretches if it meant giving Jones a chance to grow in this offense.

Taking the stage out of the equation a bit last night, Jones did take a step forward from a tough Week 3 against New Orleans when he had three interceptions and quite a few missed reads.

But all in all, what we saw against the Buccaneers was more or less similar (based on first glance) to what we’ve seen all along from Jones since the beginning of training camp.

Compare some of his advanced statistics from Week 1 against a heavy-blitzing Miami squad versus what he did Sunday against the swarming Buccaneers.

  • Week 1: Expected Points Averaged per play (EPA/play): 0.13; Total EPA: 0.59; Average Depth of Target (ADoT): 6.1, Completion Percentage Above Expected (CPOE): 7.7.
  • Week 4: EPA/play: 0.13; Total EPA: 0.59; ADoT: 5.2; CPOE: 7.7.

Though those numbers are solid, especially for a rookie, they’re not particularly amazing either.

And as much as the narratives around yesterday’s performance suggest otherwise, Sunday’s performance didn’t tell us much of anything new about Jones.

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He’s accurate. He gets the ball out fast. He can take a beating and keep peeling himself off the turf. He can play well in big games. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.

We’ve known those things about Jones from the time he set foot on the field for the Patriots or even before that if we want to go back to his Alabama days. Him doing that in one game indirectly against Brady doesn’t feel like a landmark achievement, even with as much hype surrounded this game.

All in all, Jones, while making steps in terms of responding to pressure and exploiting matchups down the field at times, is just about the same dude he was a few weeks ago. Here’s why that matters in the big picture.

Are the Patriots asking too much?

At this point in his career, Jones is a quarterback you win with, not because of. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that for a guy four starts into his NFL career. In an ideal world, no rookie quarterback would have to shoulder the burden of dragging their teams to victory so early in their careers.

The problem is that the Patriots have been asking exactly that of Jones too often through the first quarter of his rookie season.

The team’s struggles in the run game have basically forced the team to put the offense in Jones’s hands, and that’s not a good position to put a rookie quarterback in, especially against aggressive fronts.

For one thing, New England’s only two third-down conversions came on the team’s first scoring drive culminating with a touchdown throw to Hunter Henry. Aside from that, they were 0-of-7, including being unable to convert inside the red zone on their penultimate drive.

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That’s another issue: Jones and the Patriots’ offense have now failed twice this year to seize control of games in the fourth quarter by either scoring a touchdown to take a more commanding lead or produce a game-winning field goal.

Though Jones obviously didn’t fumble the ball at the 5-yard line in Week 1 or miss a 56-yard kick in Week 4, he simply hasn’t been able to produce the “gotta-have-its” yet when the Patriots need them.

Compare that to Chicago Bears rookie Justin Fields, who has certainly not played as well as Jones but has twice come up with key third-down conversions to ice his team’s two wins. Sometimes, you just have to be able to make a play to flat-out win a game. Jones will eventually get over that hump, but it’s one of the few blemishes on his record so far.

That said, maybe we’re having a different discussion if Belichick and Josh McDaniels put the ball in his hands on that 4th-and-3. Eventually they will and should do so; not going for it there might have cost the Pats the game. That’s when we might finally learn something new about what Jones is made of at the NFL level.

For now, Jones is a solid young player who’s just trying to put his teams in positions to win. Unfortunately, his team isn’t quite good enough yet to take advantage, and he’s not at the point yet where he can will his team across the finish line a la Brady.

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Jones is certainly no Brady right now, as even those making the comparisons will tell you. But he proved once again he keep pace with the Bradys of the world while still figuring out how to play the quarterback position in the NFL. That’s something Patriots fans can feel good about.

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