Mac Jones

A close look at Mac Jones’s season reveals an eerie resemblance to Tom Brady, circa 2001

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In 2001, Tom Brady (12) led the Patriots to a 17-16 road victory over the Jets, a Week 12 game that featured a second-half comeback.


It was easy to take Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke’s disclosure during the build-up to last Saturday’s matchup with the Patriots that the goal was to thwart the run and make Mac Jones beat them as a diss of the rookie quarterback.

As it turned out, it was a sound strategy, fulfilled. The Colts held Patriots running backs to 39 rushing yards, and Jones struggled before leading the Patriots on a fourth-quarter charge that came up a little short in a 27-17 loss.

Know what it was not? A diss. If you looked a little deeper, and watched a little more, the Colts had clear respect for Jones even as they plotted to put the weight of the game on his shoulders.

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This week’s episode of the in-season version of “Hard Knocks” on HBO, which features the Colts, might seem a hard watch for Patriots fans given the outcome of the game. But it’s really not, especially once you discover that, in their preparation, the Colts coaches were complimentary of Jones, even as they cooked up a plan to try to flummox him.

Part of the Colts’ plan was to pressure Jones and make him get rid of the ball quickly, hoping that a mix of looks would lead him to making a misread and a mistake. In the first half, it worked to perfection, with Jones throwing a couple of interceptions. But as we see in “Hard Knocks,’’ the Colts coaches practically marveled at Jones’s ability as a relatively inexperienced quarterback to make the correct read and get rid of the ball in a hurry.

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During one meeting, defensive line coach Brian Baker says, “The quarterback gets rid of the ball once pressured. It’s, like, ridiculous. He’s No. 1 in the league under pressure getting rid of the ball.”

Assistant defensive line coach Matt Raich then chimes in: “He’s same as Tom Brady. Same coach. Stay healthy, get rid of it. Next play.”

Baker nods: “Exactly right, Raich. We really want this guy to be anxious about people in his face. It’s to pressure him. It’s to make him hurry up everything. He’s got to feel this anxiety the entire game, guys. This is the key to eliminating their passing game, OK?”

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The Colts are a talented, well-coached team, a nuisance to play against. And they did amp up Jones’s anxiety in the pocket . . . at least into the third quarter.

That’s when Jones started doing something that is becoming a trend during his rookie season – and something that gives credence to anyone that dares to draw parallels to Tom Brady’s NFL origin story in 2001:

Jones shook off the frustrations from the early quarters and began playing his best when the game was on the line. The Colts shut out the Patriots through the first three quarters, but Jones adjusted to the Colts’ speed and relentlessness, threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Hunter Henry, and led the Patriots to 17 straight points before the great Jonathan Taylor iced the win for the Colts.

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Perhaps the biggest question with the Patriots as the regular-season schedule dwindles to three games, beginning with Sunday’s huge rematch with the Bills, is whether they can muster a comeback when they absolutely have to have one. The ability to rally against an outstanding opponent under the highest of pressure was perhaps the defining trait of the Tom Brady years. They were never out of it, as the likes of Richard Sherman, John Harbaugh, Matt Ryan, and many other worthy opponents found out in devastating fashion along the way.

Now, no one is suggesting Jones is going to have anything resembling Brady’s career, because no one, ever, is going to have anything resembling Brady’s career. If Jones has, oh, one-third of Brady’s success, he’ll be the second-best quarterback in franchise history. Right now, he’s played 14 encouraging games, but the shape of his career is to be determined. But one comparison is already fair to make: He has shown a similar, almost uncanny, knack to ‘01 Brady in his ability to get his act together before it’s too late.

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Brady rarely put up huge numbers in ‘01, throwing for over 300 yards just once. But during their nine-game winning streak from the Saints game in Week 11 through the moment Adam Vinatieri’s transcendent 48-yard field goal cleared the goal post to win Super Bowl XXXVI, Brady developed a habit of coming through in the clutch, no matter how he’d played earlier in the game.

In Week 12 against the Jets, the Patriots trailed 16-7 midway through the third quarter before pulling out a 17-16 win. Against the Bills in Week 14, the Patriots trailed 9-6 with under six minutes to play; they won, 12-9, in overtime. That knack became instant legend in the postseason, and I don’t need to tell you or Charles Woodson that the Raiders were up 13-3 in the fourth quarter in the Snow Bowl and did not win the game.

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One of Brady’s most important performances in ‘01 came in Week 5 against the Chargers, before the magic kicked in. The Patriots entered the game with a 1-3 record, and trailed 26-16 with under nine minutes to play. But Brady and the Patriots found a way, winning in overtime and probably saving their season.

Jones’s most resilient performance so far also occurred against the Chargers, back in Week 8. The Patriots entered with a 3-4 record and little more than a daydream of being where they are now in the standings. Jones struggled mightily in the first half, completing just 8 of 22 passes and overthrowing several receivers, up to and possibly including Harold Jackson and Stanley Morgan.

The Patriots still trailed, 17-16, after three quarters. But an Adrian Phillips pick-six and a 2-point conversion put the Patriots up, 24-17. Jones and the offense got the ball back with 9:40 left in regulation and went on a methodical 14-play march that killed nearly seven minutes of clock and culminated with a Nick Folk field goal. It was a necessary and stirring win.

Early in the season, Jones led impressive rallies in games the Patriots couldn’t quite pull out. He found Kendrick Bourne for a 75-yard touchdown with 2:11 left to take a 3-point lead against Dallas. Against the Bucs, he led a drive that put the Patriots ahead with under five minutes to play before Brady went out and . . . well, did exactly what you’d expect Brady to do.

Near-misses and almost-had-its were acceptable early in the season. They are not now. The Patriots are a real contender, a team that has a genuine reason to believe extraordinary outcomes are possible.

The rapid growth of their rookie quarterback is a major reason why. The Colts knew it, even as they successfully plotted to bewilder Jones, at least for a while.

We haven’t seen this before, but we have seen something rather familiar. Should this Patriots season continue to borrow bits and pieces from the ‘01 blueprint, remaining Patriots opponents won’t be so successful.

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