The coming of Mac Jones to the Patriots has fans and pundits alike projecting returns to the halcyon days of Tom Brady in New England following a lost year under Cam Newton.
No more quarterback runs or throws in the dirt. No more “RPOs” and gimmicks.
Just good old-fashioned surgical precision from the pocket from a quarterback who does his best work by just standing and delivering to receivers.
Of course, those notions have also sparked discussion about how much the Patriots offense will need to change if Jones ends up taking over for Newton — whether by Week 1 or mid-season. After all, the change from a “running” quarterback to a more traditional pocket passer is likely to be an immense one, right?
Perhaps, but the changes might not be what you expect based on what Jones was most comfortable with at Alabama.
Here’s what a Jones-run offense might look like in 2021 if the rookie ends up taking over for Newton sooner than expected.
The Patriots might run more RPOs than they did a year ago.
Wait…what do you mean more RPOs? Mac Jones isn’t an RPO quarterback!
Actually, yes he is. Just ask his offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian: “When you think about Alabama, this is who we are. This is what we do,” he said last year of his use of RPOs in the Crimson Tide offense.
Benjamin Solak of The Draft Network estimates 19 percent of Jones’s pass attempts (around 76 attempts in total) last year were of the RPO variety — one of the highest numbers in the 2021 draft class.
By contrast, Newton ran just 13 RPOs in 2020, which was good for 31st in the league according to Pro Football Reference. Jones almost had that many RPO attempts in Alabama’s semi-final game against Notre Dame alone.
For starters, RPOs (run-pass options) aren’t the same thing as the “read” options the Patriots used with Newton last season.
Contrary to popular belief, RPOs do not require a mobile quarterback. They’re usually little more than quick play-action style throws with the option to give the ball to the running back. The Chiefs hardly ever call designed runs for Patrick Mahomes, but they do call a lot of RPOs — only Arizona’s Kyler Murray had more attempts on such passes than Mahomes.
Still, RPOs weren’t a big part of the Patriots’ offense with Newton, nor were they with Brady.
So why might they be for Jones if he plays as a rookie?
For one, they’re familiar and will help him acclimate. Getting comfortable and building confidence is imperative for a rookie quarterback, and installing one or two RPO plays he can lean on could help with that. The Patriots added several read-option run plays last year like the ones Newton ran in Carolina to boost his comfort level; they can do the same for Jones with RPOs.
Alabama QB Mac Jones on RPOs vs Notre Dame (@PFF_College)
10 comp / 11 att
(pulled ~50% of the time)
Alabama generated 0.69 EPA per RPO against ND. Sark put on a clinic. pic.twitter.com/BIMIE61c1g
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) January 2, 2021
Another reason: they’re based on quick decisions that fit Jones’s ability to throw the ball in rhythm. All you have to do is read one defender’s actions and either hand the ball off or deliver a strike on a predetermined route.
Who doesn’t love easy yards?
While Jones is a more traditional pocket passer than Newton, he still has a lot to learn about running an NFL offense. Furthermore, he benefited from running modern college concepts more than many experts suggest.
As such, it makes sense to add in concepts Jones is comfortable with as he digests the full Josh McDaniels playbook.
They’ll focus more on progressions rather than “reading defenses.”
Dominating elite competition in college is no simple task, even if you play at Alabama.
But Jones’s situation was about as cushy as it gets, both because of his dominant supporting cast and Sarkisian’s quarterback-friendly schemes.
In particular, Sarkisian’s offense doesn’t demand that quarterbacks read coverages during the play. Rather, passers go through simple, repeatable progressions: if the first receiver is open, you throw it without hesitation. If they are not, then you move to the next receiver.
The current Texas Longhorns head coach outlined one such staple concept called “Railroad” that illustrates that point in a coach’s clinic prior to the 2020 season:
— James Light (@JamesALight) April 27, 2021
This kind of offense, Sarkisian explained, is perfect for Jones, whom the coach described as a “very detailed, very ‘A-B-C'”-type of quarterback as compared to the more instinctive Tua Tagovailoa.
Obviously, there’s no reason to believe Jones can’t read defenses at all or that he won’t be able to do so in the future. But again, putting the emphasis on moving through regimented progressions rather than trying to correctly diagnose coverages in real-time should make things more straightforward if Jones does play as a rookie.
Another thing that promotes progression-based reads? Play-action passing, which Jones did on about a third of his snaps last season. That’s more play-action than Brady did in 2019 with New England (roughly 20 percent) but right on par with Newton in 2020 (about 34 percent).
The Patriots’ ability to run the football could serve Jones well in that regard, allowing McDaniels to mix in relatively simple concepts in the RPO and play-action game to give his rookie quarterback options early in his career.
He might take more deep shots than Newton would.
As you’ve likely heard, Jones doesn’t have the top-tier arm of some of his peers. But it doesn’t matter how far you can launch a ball if your receiver doesn’t have a shot to catch it.
To be clear, Jones does have a strong enough arm to threaten defenses down the field.
But the now-Patriots quarterback transformed himself into one of college football’s best deep-ball throwers last year because of his ball placement and timing, almost always giving his receivers a chance to come down with a deep throw even if it was contested.
Efficient pocket thrower with ball distributor traits.
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) April 30, 2021
That could be a very intriguing trait for an offense that only got 29 pass attempts of longer than 20 yards from Newton in 2020.
Jones’s average depth of target last year was 8.8 yards, which easily outpaced Newton’s 7.3. Newton’s shorter yardage could be attributed to the Patriots’ system, COVID after-effects, or his shoulder just not being healthy enough to throw long.
Of course, Jones also put up those numbers in an Alabama offense that had speedsters like Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith running free and clear down the field. As a rookie in the far-less vertical Patriots offense, one could see New England tasking Jones with playing more in the short and intermediate area rather than dialing up the launch codes frequently.
But Jones has shown a good feel for hitting receivers down the field and was asked to do so quite often at Alabama. That skillset might encourage the Patriots to be a bit more aggressive with him behind center than expected.
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