fb-pixel Skip to main content
Ben Volin | On football

Bill Belichick, Mac Jones, and the Patriots’ quest for history: Winning the Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback

The Patriots and Tom Brady (left) prevented Ben Roethlisberger from becoming the first rookie to take his team to the Super Bowl in January 2005.GENE J. PUSKAR

Bill Belichick has coached 459 regular-season and postseason games in 26 seasons as an NFL head coach with the Browns and Patriots.

In exactly six of those 459 games did Belichick start a rookie quarterback: Two with Jacoby Brissett in 2016, and four with Eric Zeier with the 1995 Browns. Belichick is 2-4 in those games.

But Belichick, even after all these years, has never been afraid to try something new. He’s opening a new era of Patriots football by entering the 2021 season with rookie first-round pick Mac Jones as his starting quarterback.

Though he’s only turning 23 on Sunday, Jones impressed Belichick and the coaching staff with his maturity, leadership, and performance throughout the last five weeks of training camp.

Advertisement



“I just think Mac has been incredibly poised,” said receivers coach Troy Brown, the longtime Patriot. “He’s been able to improve over the course of training camp, and he’s put in the work, and just been a trusted player for us since he’s gotten here. He’s just been a tremendous leader.”

If Tom Brady made history last year by becoming the oldest quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl (for the second time), Belichick and Jones can chase their own history this year:

No rookie quarterback has ever reached the Super Bowl in the game’s 55 years, let alone win it. Only 22 rookie QBs have started a playoff game (11-21 overall record), and only three have even reached the conference championship game: Mark Sanchez (2009 Jets), Joe Flacco (2008 Ravens), and Ben Roethlisberger (2004 Steelers). The Buccaneers’ Shaun King also started the NFC Championship game in the 1999 season as a late-season injury replacement.

Rookie QBs who won playoff games Only a handful of rookie quarterbacks won a playoff game during their first season in the NFL — but one, John Wolford, did it last season. Here's a rundown.
Player Team Season No. of wins
John Wolford Rams 2020 1
Russell Wilson Seahawks 2012 1
T.J. Yates Texans 2011 1
Mark Sanchez Jets 2009 2
Joe Flacco Ravens 2008 2
Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 2004 1
Aaron Brooks Saints 1999 1
Shaun King Buccaneers 1999 1
Dieter Brock Rams 1985 1
SOURCE: Pro Football Reference

And make no mistake, winning the Super Bowl is the Patriots’ goal this year, even with a rookie under center. You don’t spend $175 million guaranteed in free agency to go 8-9 and play for draft positioning.

Advertisement



But Jones, who won a national championship at Alabama last season, has a lot of believers, especially after his performance in three preseason games.

“Mac’s made some pretty sophisticated throws,” said Cris Collinsworth, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” analyst.

“When I watch Mac this year, I don’t want to say it looked like Tom Brady, but it looked like Tom Brady’s offense.”

Rookie success in the postseason is rare, but has become more common over the last two decades. In 2008, Flacco and Matt Ryan both reached the playoffs at 11-5, with Flacco advancing to the conference championship. In 2012, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson all won at least nine games and reached the playoffs. Dak Prescott went 13-3 to win the NFC East in 2016, and Lamar Jackson took over in the second half to lead the Ravens to the playoffs in 2018.

Roethlisberger (2004), Kyle Orton (2005), Sanchez (2009), and Andy Dalton (2011) are the other rookie quarterbacks this century to reach the playoffs.

Rookie QBs to lead their teams to the playoffs since 2000 Rookie success in the postseason is rare, but is becoming more common over the past two decades. Here's a look at all the QBs who have made the playoffs in their rookie season, and how they performed once they got there.
Player Team Season Regular-season record Playoff record
Lamar Jackson Ravens 2018 6-1 0-1
Dak Prescott Cowboys 2016 13-3 0-1
Andrew Luck Colts 2012 11-5 0-1
Robert Griffin III Washington 2012 10-6 0-1
Russell Wilson Seahawks 2012 11-5 1-1
Andy Dalton Bengals 2011 9-7 0-1
Mark Sanchez Jets 2009 9-7 2-1
Joe Flacco Ravens 2008 11-5 2-1
Matt Ryan Falcons 2008 11-5 0-1
Kyle Orton Bears 2005 11-5 0-1
Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 2004 15-1 1-1
SOURCE: Pro Football Reference

The two elements shared by most of those 11 teams: Running the ball and a strong defense. Nine of the 11 teams were top five in the NFL in either rushing offense or points allowed, and six of the teams were top five in both. The 2009 Jets with Sanchez were No. 1 in both categories. The only team to reach the playoffs without succeeding in rushing offense and points allowed was the 2012 Colts with Luck, who finished 22nd and 21st, respectively.

Advertisement



The 2021 Patriots were seemingly built with a rookie QB in mind. The Patriots’ defense should be one of the best in the NFL with the returns of Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy and the addition of Matt Judon. On offense, the Patriots should be heavy with the run and play-action pass, featuring two great tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, a deep stable of running backs led by Damien Harris and James White, and what looks to be a terrific offensive line boosted by the return of tackle Trent Brown.

Hunter Henry (left) and Jonnu Smith (right) give Mac Jones a stellar pair of tight end targets across the middle this season.Steven Senne/Associated Press

“The best thing you can give a young quarterback is a good offensive line, and the Patriots will be a top-five offensive line this year,” said ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, a former 11-year NFL quarterback. “Their offense is going to be a smash-you-in-the-face run game. They’re going to turn back time a little bit, pound the football, and then the best quarterback in college football last year at play-action was Mac Jones.”

Former Saints GM Randy Mueller said the 2021 Patriots have the same look as the 2001 Patriots, who won the Super Bowl with Tom Brady in his second year as a player.

“I took a Saints team to New England that year,” Mueller tweeted (edited for clarity). ″It was the physicality and how they knocked us back on both lines that was discussed on the plane ride home. [The Patriots’] offensive line and defense in ‘21 might be as good, and a big factor.”

Advertisement



Former longtime NFL coach Mike Sherman was the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator in 2012 when rookie Ryan Tannehill went 7-9. Sherman, who also coached Tannehill at Texas A&M, said Tannehill benefited from playing in the same scheme as he did in college, and so should Jones in going from Alabama to New England. Jones’s offensive coordinator for his freshman year at Alabama was Brian Daboll, the longtime Patriots’ coach who is now the Bills’ offensive coordinator.

“He basically ran a pro-style offense at Alabama. It was probably not quite as detailed as New England is, but he probably won’t see a heck of a lot of difference,” Sherman said. “He’s going be introduced to more concepts — particularly on defense, disguises that defenses will employ. I think this quarterback will be challenged to the nth degree, and I think he’s more than accepting of that challenge.”

Orlovsky said Jones will probably experience growing pains in two areas: Can he get to his third read quickly enough, and can the not-so-swift Jones escape pressure? But Orlovsky was impressed with how quickly Jones processed things during the preseason.

“He’s not a fast person, but he plays fast,” Orlovsky said. “If you’ve got a really good grasp of what the defense is going to do, you can cancel out [receiving] options before the ball gets snapped. And I think he does a good job of that, because he plays so fast.”

Advertisement



Collinsworth doesn’t think the Patriots have to hold much back with Jones. He sees a quarterback who is picking things up quickly.

“I don’t think they’re going to water it down. I think they’re going to play,” Collinsworth said. “He just looks so calm and in control and making the right throws. If you didn’t know he was a rookie, you wouldn’t even be asking that question.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.