FOXBOROUGH — Mac Jones’s “Welcome to the NFL” moment was all set up for next Sunday night, when the eyes of NFL nation will turn their collective way toward Foxborough.
Prime time, national television, and the man who set the quarterback standard in these parts leading the visiting Bucs onto the field? That was already enough to heat up the spotlight on New England’s rookie QB, cast as he is as the heir apparent to Tom Brady, the OG Patriot great, with the football world so eager to see how he would hold up in a crucible unlike anything he’d faced before.
But as “welcome to the big time” moments go, the Saints did a pretty good job of cutting the line Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, pummeling Jones across four quarters of bruising football, smothering him in the pocket, chasing him into the backfield, and generally, reminding him they had a little something to say before football Armageddon arrives next week.
To his credit, Jones held up well, bouncing up from the turf as many times as the Saints’ defense knocked him to it. His late touchdown toss to Kendrick Bourne was as pretty as it was impressive, thrown off his back foot while under pressure, completed just a play after he’d scrambled 12 yards for a first down and proceeded to rip the knee brace he’d been wearing right off his leg. But flashes of glory were all the Patriots had, exposed in so many other areas that any concern of Brady lighting up the field next weekend have to be replaced by worry the Bucs’ vaunted defensive front might devour young Jones alive.
Never mind him saying after the 28-13 loss that “my body feels good.” Jones has made it quite clear across three weeks as the starter that he’s being well-coached in the Patriot Way of interviewing. He sidestepped a question about facing Brady next week as seamlessly as he refused to indict his porous offensive line for the ice packs and massages he is surely going to require to recover from this week’s beating.
The Patriots have to get this fixed before permanent damage is done to their first-round pick, the sort of long-term developmental wounds that have plagued so many quarterbacks caught behind bad offensive lines, causing both happy feet and bad decisions. Jones is standing tall so far, but it can’t last forever.
“He’s a tough kid,” veteran center David Andrews said, “but there’s not a lot of answers. We can’t go back and change anything that just happened. We just got to come in tomorrow and get back to work … He’s poised. I mean, he keeps going out there, keeps throwing punches. It’s our job to stand up for him and he’s standing back there and delivering the ball. We got to hold up our end of the bargain.
“Our whole team has to hold up our end of the bargain better.”
True that — another chance for the defense to make a stand only to melt while the opponent salted the game away, much like the Week 1 loss against Miami. More special teams blunders that included a blocked punt and a kickoff out of bounds and more costly penalties that also contributed mightily to the loss. A day made worse by seeing James White leave the game on a cart in the second quarter, a hip injury that robbed Jones of a trusted weapon and robbed the Pats of a respected leader.
White was the key cog in last week’s win over the Jets, a game that seemed to build on what Jones had done in his pro debut against the Dolphins and had the Pats poised to stage yet another week of upward mobility. But the offense went south instead, a two-touchdown loss that was somehow more lopsided than the score would suggest.
“Give the Saints credit today — they were certainly the better team, did a better job than we did in every area,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We had some chances, but in the end, we couldn’t get it done. It’s disappointing of course. There’s no magic sauce, just have to go back to work and get better.”
New England was never in this game, not with Jones running for his life from the opening series, his O-line (again minus Trent Brown at right tackle) unable to stem the tide of New Orleans defenders, eight of whom would notch at least one of the 11 recorded hits of Jones by the time the carnage was complete.
Here was Jones getting sacked deep behind the line of scrimmage. There he was overthrowing receivers as he rushed to get the ball out. Here he was throwing the first three interceptions of his young career. There he was watching the second of them get deflected straight into a pick-6 or watching the third end the game. Here he was trying desperately to run for extra real estate, a couple of quarterback sneaks preceding the game-high 12-yard scamper. And there he was capping that 12-yard first down with a 22-yard TD to Bourne, a beautiful off-balance throw that Bourne danced into the end zone with a balletic ability to stay inbounds.
But here were the Patriots, already the league’s worst in red-zone offense, going 0 for 1, two field goals all they had to show after three quarters of play.
“They have a great defense, the Saints do. They did what they did,” Jones said. “But it’s more about us and me just executing our plays. I can do a better job of that. I don’t like to assume anything. I just like to watch the tape and look at it from a bird’s eye view and don’t be emotional about it. Just look at it and learn from it and then flip the page. I’m sure there’s plays I left on the field. I know there are. And I’m sure that the offense as a whole, we can all play better together, and we will.”
Give him some time in the pocket to try, and at least it’s a fair fight.