Patriots

The region needs to recalibrate its expectations for the Patriots

Teams with rookie quarterbacks aren't expected to be great right away — even the Patriots.

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

In the various venues where pundits watched the game through a Patriots lens, Sunday’s 25-6 downing of the Jets was described in different terms. Some tagged it as a struggle, at least early. Others dubbed it a grind, usually with an underlying frustration that it wasn’t easier. The headline on this very site categorized it as a “slog.”

And all are apt. It wasn’t exactly a masterpiece against what projects to (again) be one of pro football’s poorest dregs.

But the most telling descriptor was the simplest, and most undeniable. That one framed it as Mac Jones’s first NFL win.
There’s a lot loaded into that tagline, if you think about it, and if you recognize the context in which Jones came into this job. He’s a rookie, starting in his second career contest. He earned that opportunity by beating out the incumbent, Cam Newton, in a training camp that introduced an influx of new talent after an offseason overhaul aimed at jumpstarting an engine that had leaked a lot of juice in its first year after the exit of Tom Brady.
Sure, he was a first-round pick, Heisman Trophy finalist, and national collegiate champion. But he was the fifth QB selected back in April, and those credentials don’t always translate at the next level. Especially for those joining a 7-9 team to helm an offense that ranked 27th in scoring a season ago.

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To put it simply, expecting much more than what we saw Sunday, from either Jones or these Patriots at large, is expecting too much at this point in the process. Just look around at what’s happening with his rookie classmates, and remember what we’ve learned about the length of a NFL season — specifically the perils of putting too much stock in what happens before Summer even gives way to Fall.

So while Patriots fans are eager to see Jones finally let it fly (or at least into the end zone), they’re better served by the patient, realistic approach Josh McDaniels’s offense has taken. It may dim some of the excitement around Jones’s arrival, and his 73.9 percent completion rate, when his average target is just 3.1 yards beyond the line of scrimmage through two weeks, but consider what the Jets got out of Zach Wilson this weekend as a cautionary tale warning of the alternative.

All four of the New York rookie’s interceptions Sunday came on a throw at least 14 yards down field, with an average depth of 20.5 yards from scrimmage. The No. 2 pick is now up to five interceptions already, matching the total of this year’s No. 1 selection, Trevor Lawrence. Two of Lawrence’s came Sunday, when he hit on 42 percent of his throws, and his average target was 12.6 yards beyond the line — roughly four times longer than Jones was asked to fling it.

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Jones, remember, hasn’t yet been picked. And he has the only victory among the six games started by this year’s rookie QB class.

It’s not sexy, but it’s smart, especially given what’s happened to the Pats offensive line in light of Trent Brown’s absence at right tackle. The behemoth played only seven snaps in Week 1, then two backups split time there Sunday, and with Isaiah Wynn not playing up to his potential on the other side it sent Jones into Monday night’s Packers-Lions matchup as the most-hit and third-most blitzed QB in the league through two weeks. He has been under pressure on almost one of every five dropbacks (19.2 percent).

Until that’s resolved, it’d be reckless to put Jones in a more mistake-prone spot. There’s been no need. That’s the luxury of rolling out a rookie QB with a reputable running game and reliable defense. To this point, the Patriots haven’t trailed by more than seven points, and haven’t needed Jones to win a game for them. Game two is not the time to needlessly overload the plate of the franchise’s future.

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Rather, Jones has been just what they’ve asked him to be — and while he’ll surely be asked to consume more moving forward, he may not be asked to blossom too quickly, considering the Pats have been trending toward this ground-and-pound, trust-the-defense brand of offense for a while now. It was the obvious move in Newton’s era, when the quarterback averaged 6.8 intended air yards, but it was in effect at the end of Brady’s reign, too. In his final full season with the Pats, his 7.6 intended air yards per attempt ranked 20th of the 26 QBs who attempted 400 passes, and immediately before that his sixth Super Bowl run was built around the running attack and defense, as well.

As with the last time he had a young QB — before those years when Brady was in his prime and had hall-of-fame targets — Bill Belichick seems intent to go forward with a roster and approach that deemphasizes the quarterback position. And another of the coach’s longtime tropes rings true here, as well.
For years, we’ve witnessed the slow build of September. We’ve been told that the first four games are really an extension of the preseason. We’ve been reminded that football season doesn’t really start until after Thanksgiving.

If that’s all been true for 22 years, it stands to reason that it’s now truer than ever — given that the preseason has been shortened by one game, the regular season is a week longer, and there’s now an additional team invited to the AFC wild card round. There’s less time to get ready for the season, more time to grow within it, and more leash if you’re trying to hang on to a playoff spot.

So don’t look at Sunday and try to project how the Patriots might’ve matched up with a playoff opponent like the Chiefs, or the Titans or Ravens, for that matter. The playoffs start in January. That’s four months away, and a lot can happen in the 15 regular-season games between now and then. Just ask the Bucs, who were 7-5 at one point last season. And the Chiefs themselves, whose midseason struggles and Patrick Mahomes’s injury would’ve cost them the bye they enjoyed in 2019 had the Pats not choked down the stretch. Add the eminently beatable 2018 Patriots to the mix, and the last three Super Bowl champs have all looked like anything but championship-caliber for an extended stretch en route to lifting the Lombardi.

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Championship-caliber is somewhere between a misnomer and a flat-out myth at this point in the calendar, especially when 18 of the league’s 32 teams enter Week 3 at 1-1. Every one of those clubs has already experienced ups and downs. Every one of those squads recognizes that, amid so much parity, the winners are often the teams that make the fewest mistakes.

Every one of those teams understands that the road ahead will require surviving their share of ugly struggles, that they’ll need to grind the whole way through, and that, yes, it’ll be a slog at times. The teams with a rookie quarterback can expect to feel that more than anybody.

And thus the expectations for those players, and those teams, should be framed by that reality. Not the absurdity in which New England’s football fans have existed for the past 20 years.

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