Like any football fan of a certain age, Mac Jones grew up with a simple understanding of how the NFL playoffs must work: The Patriots are always there. More often than not, they are there all the way through to the Super Bowl, a fixture on the winter stage.
Think of it: Jones was just a few days past his third birthday when the 2001 season began. By the time that season was over, the Patriots would make the first of nine Super Bowl appearances in the next 18 years under coach Bill Belichick, beating the Rams to win the first of six championships. It was a run of dominance that didn’t leave it up to chance whether people would choose to watch the Patriots play; they forced themselves upon the nation through winning, winning and more winning. The Belichick way became the Patriot brand — built through his no-nonsense, team-above-self ethos.
For an impressionable young quarterback in Jacksonville, Fla., the message was loud and clear.
“New England’s just a great place. In watching them the past years, they do everything right,” Jones was saying late Thursday night, barely an hour after the Patriots made him their top choice in this year’s draft, selecting the Alabama quarterback with the 15th pick.
“It’s all about the team,” he said. “That’s kind of what I grew up knowing is being a good teammate. And then obviously winning. It comes down to winning football games and New England’s done that.”
Then Jones said something that showed why this might just be the perfect intersection of coach and franchise, repeated as if he’d been sitting in Belichick’s meetings over the years.
“They don’t look in the past, they just look in the future,” Jones said, “so we’ve got to just focus on trying to win games. Take it day by day and eventually you’ll win a lot of games.”
So much of Belichick’s tenure has been defined by that ability to keep the gaze going forward. No resting on laurels allowed, a wipe-the-slate-clean mentality is what allowed the franchise to reset after its first dynastic run of three Super Bowls in the 2001, 2003, and 2004 seasons and win three more in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 ones.
But that was all with Tom Brady.
And when Brady left town to join the Buccaneers, Brady and Belichick’s first season apart spawned a whole new brand of keeping score, pitting the two former BFFs against each other. We all know how that one turned out. Brady’s knockout punch is still reverberating in these parts, his sunset ride with one more Lombardi Trophy last season (his first with the Buccaneers) leaving bruises all across New England.
But maybe that wasn’t as fair a fight as we thought. Belichick wasn’t at full strength. Through his own doing, yes, and that’s on him. But with no replacement in place for Brady, with a last-minute addition of Cam Newton in that spot, with an offseason and training camp gutted by COVID-19 protocols, with a league-high number of veterans opting out of the pandemic-altered season, with Newton himself getting waylaid by a case of COVID, with the last great offensive weapon Julian Edelman felled by injury, the Patriots never had a chance.
Belichick’s answer? Break out the checkbook. Find a quarterback. Get back into the ring. And then, armed with a league-high $175 million free agent spending spree and a new young quarterback to mold to the system, start the fight again.
Only this time it’s no mano-a-mano battle against Brady. This is Belichick gunning for history, as he stands 36 wins (postseason included) from Don Shula’s NFL-record 347, and having just turned 69, knows the professional clock is ticking.
It’s likely the 2021 season will take a few rounds to find a rhythm (Belichick did, after all, insist Newton remains his starter), but when a head coach with 26 years of experience has never before used a first-round pick on a QB and decides this is the guy to change that stat, the dynamic is obvious. Jones is Brady’s true successor, and he is Belichick’s best hope.
“Mac was available there at our pick and he’s a guy we spent a lot of time with and felt like that was the best pick at that time for us,” the coach said Thursday night. “I look forward to working with him. He’s a smart kid. He’s been in a system that’s similar to ours. We have had a lot of good conversations with him. I think he’ll be able to process the offense. It’s obviously going to take a lot of time. We’ll see how it goes.”
Jones, understanding that permanent forward-looking gaze, seems to get it. He moves from the tutelage of Belichick-bestie Nick Saban to Saban-bestie Bill Belichick, and if history wants to remember how he fell from being the potential No. 3 selection for San Francisco, his internal dialogue tells a different story. “Secretly, I really wanted to go to the Patriots all along, so I’m actually really happy that it happened,” he said.
He wants the hard coaching. He wants to work with Belichick. And as the rest of the Patriots’ draft class filled in behind him, it became very clear he is not alone. To a man, they talked of the opportunity to be taught by Belichick. If Jones was relieved, his colleagues were reverential.
“A dream come true,” said second-rounder Chrsitian Barmore, the Alabama defensive tackle.
“Surreal,” echoed third-rounder Ronnie Perkins, the Oklahoma defensive end. “My mind can’t even wrap around it. Just to get the opportunity to get coached by Coach Belichick is the most mind-blowing thing in my head right now.”
“A great feeling,” said fourth-rounder Rhamondre Stevenson, the running back from Oklahoma, “just knowing that I’ve got Bill Belichick as the head coach. I know he’s a great coach, he’s a genius and he loves what he does.”
He’s ready to come out swinging.