FOXBOROUGH — The stage was set for Mac Jones to get his football Hollywood ending, the script unfolding with a climactic fourth-quarter scene.
Here was the Patriots rookie quarterback, all energy and motion, bolting into his huddle after Jonathan Jones’s interception had just handed his offense the ball. There was 8:07 to go and his team was trailing by a point. For a franchise defined by the quarterback before the quarterback he’d just replaced, Jones found himself thrust into the very game-day situation Tom Brady loved and thrived in most, the chance to lead a fourth-quarter comeback. The Gillette Stadium crowd was roaring, and Jones’s arm was humming.
He was doing it. From the 50-yard line where he started all the way down to the Miami 11, Jones led a string of eight impressive plays. They included three completions, where his poise in the shotgun was evident, two third-down conversions, where his courage in the face of the pass rush was impressive, and a couple of handoffs, where his confidence in running his huddle was contagious.
But the ninth play of the drive is the one the Patriots will remember. And the one they will rue, as the last on a list of too many mistakes that cost them a 17-16 decision to the Dolphins.
Damien Harris’s fumble at the 11 killed the potential go-ahead drive, surrendered possible points and gave away possession with a precious 3:18 left on the clock. And on a day when the Pats turned the ball over twice, on a day they managed only 13 points on four red zone trips, on a day when they let eight penalties rob them of 84 yards, it was undoubtedly the costliest mistake.
But the play before the fatal play? The Patriots should remember that one too, as one of the many impressive ones by a rookie quarterback on the first day of what promises to be a long Patriot life.
Welcome to the NFL, Mac Jones. Sure looks like you belong.
As the pain of the setback subsides and the Patriots take their page out of the Bill Belichick handbook and move ”on to the Jets,” they do so behind a quarterback who proved himself ready for prime time. With patience in the pocket, with courage to stand up to hits or wisdom to step up into throws, this was an impressive debut for Jones, whose stat line (29 of 39 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown) had everything but the one stat he wanted.
“I think we can get better,” he said after the game, sweat still dripping from his brow as he stood behind a microphone, football pants and cleats still on. “That’s how we have to look at it. It definitely wasn’t good enough, and it started with me. We got to watch the film. We lost. So that’s not good enough.”
Yet so many of his plays were more than good enough. Remember, Harris took that first-down handoff at Miami’s 11 because one play earlier, on second and 5 from the 22, Jones had fired off a dart over the middle of the field that hit tight end Jonnu Smith in stride, a ball that after 11 yards and a first down, Smith mike-dropped to the turf in satisfaction. Remember, six plays earlier, facing third and 6 from Miami’s 46, Jones found himself furiously retreating in the face of a defensive onslaught, only to reset his feet and connect with Jakobi Meyers for a 7-yard gain.
And remember, all of that happened after a day that started out shakily. Jones’s first possession included a sack and fumble that was recovered by teammate David Andrews. His second possession, sandwiched around a Miami touchdown drive, included a backward pass that was fumbled and turned over, a ball Jones knew he should have thrown away. His third possession started to show some promise, but even as he hung in long enough to connect with a decisive completion to Meyers, he followed that up with a risky deep ball that could have been picked off, the tale of a rookie quarterback as told in back-to-back plays.
But eventually, he found his groove. Did you see the sideline dime he dropped in James White’s lap? Or the 25-yard pass to Nelson Agholor over the middle with great air underneath it? Or the beautiful attempt to a streaking Meyers over the top that might have gone for a touchdown if old friend Jason McCourty hadn’t committed Mac on Mac crime and broken up the play with a perfectly-timed reach-in?
Jones did get his touchdown on the following Pats possession, clinching his fifth professional drive with a 7-yard TD to Agholor. “I ran my route, Jakobi ran a good route, he drew the main defender, and Mac thew a great ball,”Agholor said.
It was a first for either of them in a Patriot uniform, but as they jogged to the sideline, neither seemed willing to bask. Jones was handed the ball first, the chance to put it aside as a memento for his personal trophy case. But he immediately handed it off to Agholor, who didn’t seem to want it either. Backup QB Brian Hoyer eventually took control, making sure a Patriots staffer got it on the sideline, but when asked why he didn’t tuck it away for himself, Jones made it clear he’s already a Belichickian Patriot.
“Because it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “It was one touchdown. We’ve got to score more. It’s not like the game was over right there. We’ve got to do better in the red zone and get more touchdowns, and we will.”
His future is bright.