FOXBOROUGH — It requires a crystal ball, not a football, to project what caliber of quarterback the Patriots ultimately will wield in Mac Jones. The precocious passer has already proven he’s capable and proficient enough to pilot the Patriots to the playoffs.
Even a Mac skeptic like moi must concede that obvious point.
The Patriots are purring along like a perfectly tuned piece of Belichickian engineering, riding a six-game winning streak. The team is functioning exactly as it was constructed to when Daddy Warbucks Bill Belichick backed up the Brink’s truck in free agency. That means the quarterback is a supporting piece, not the centerpiece of the operation.
All the arguing and obsessing over the new passer in residence misses the point. It’s not about how good Jones eventually will be (I’m sticking to Kirk Cousins-Plus). The quintessential question is exactly how good a quarterback does Belichick need to be successful in the manner we’re accustomed to during his Patriots reign? This isn’t about what the kid can be. It’s about what Belichick can do without the benefit of an elite quarterback.
So, here’s the rub for Patriots true believers: The more you hail the rookie as Baby Brady or TB12 2.0 already, the more you detract from the Hoodie and his brilliance. We already know that Belichick can cop rings when armed with one of the league’s best quarterbacks. Yawn. The true test is whether he can do it without one? He’s on track.
Jones is an ideal test case if he’s not prematurely anointed as a signal-caller savior.
As Ian O’Connor chronicled in his book, “Belichick,” the Patriots believed when You Know Who was around that they didn’t need the greatest QB of all-time to reach pro football’s empyrean. One unnamed assistant coach told O’Connor the feeling was that Belichick’s system elevated Brady, not the other way around; Belichick was capable of making the Super Bowl with any of the top 15 quarterbacks in the NFL.
Jones is Belichick’s best chance of certifying that argument. The rookie is a revelation. He threw for a career-high 310 yards and once again completed 70 percent of his passes (71.9) on Sunday as the Patriots overwhelmed the injury-ravaged Tennessee Tourniquets, er, Titans, 36-13.
Jones is more than a game manager, but he’s being managed expertly by Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
They keep him ahead of the chains, away from mistakes, and out of harm’s way. Jones is cosseted with easy reads, completions, and leads. He has overseen more screens than the Nielsen TV ratings this season. It’s truly masterful stuff.
“Josh does a really good job of scheming how to move guys out of zones,” said wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. “It’s just a great scheme, and Mac is reading it tremendously, and it’s just working really well.”
Mac has become both a meal ticket for McDaniels to get another head coaching job and a talisman for Belichick and his unfailing, unflinching, all-knowing System. In Mac We Trust, except they don’t, at least not fully. When things get dicey, the Patriots dial it back for Mac.
Despite his gaudy numbers, he’s not operating with the full faith and confidence afforded a franchise quarterback. The rookie training wheels remain.
In a 45-7 win over the Browns, the Patriots led, 21-7, and reached the Cleveland 29 with 1:14 before the half and three timeouts. They ran three screens, a three-step drop-out to Jakobi Meyers, and a run. Another pass for 11 yards to Hunter Henry was negated by penalty.
Against the Falcons, New England led, 10-0, with the ball at their own 40 and 6:19 remaining in the first half. After Mac took a sack, they went wide receiver screen and running back screen, the latter on third and 12 from their 38.
Sunday, the Patriots ran a screen for 11 yards on third and 10 from the Tennessee 19 on their first drive, which Jones capped with a 4-yard parabola to Bourne. On their final drive before the half, furnished with a 16-13 lead, they opened with a screen pass to Brandon Bolden for 21 yards. These gimme passes go a long way in keeping Jones on schedule and out of trouble.
That’s not to say the rookie isn’t worthy of praise. He clearly is. However, he’s not saddled with a full franchise-quarterback load. That’s not just my opinion, ask NFL Films guru Greg Cosell.
After a decade and a half of asking the quarterback to elevate the offense with Brady, the roles are reversed.
“Mac is the type of guy that you know ... he’s going to come in here and try to be the best guy he possibly can,” said Jakobi Meyers. “The guys that are around him, we just got to do a better job of supporting him, and I feel like that’s probably why he has been playing better.”
But Mac Mania runs wild. His completion percentage (70.3) has become the new Rajon Rondo’s assists of Boston sports — an off-cited stat used to exaggerate the standing of a local player.
After two decades of unimaginable and ineluctable success, it feels like a birthright for the Patriots to have one of the league’s premier passers. But Jones isn’t there ... yet. He’s in passer purgatory, superior to the Mayfields and Tannehills, but below the great ones.
Belichick’s legacy is secure, but nothing burnishes it more than winning a Super Bowl with a quarterback who isn’t Brady and isn’t elite. It’s his mike drop.
So ... if Mac is already as great as a certain vocal faction believes him to be, then Belichick doesn’t buttress his case for being the Foxborough fulcrum all along.
Sure, credit Belichick for capitalizing when a great QB lands in his lap. That’s all.
Belichick benefits more if Mac isn’t Brady 2.0. He needs him to top out as a top 10-15 QB. That’s the sweet spot where Belichick’s brilliance outshines that of his signal-caller.
In time, we may look upon Jones as the Steve Young to Brady’s Joe Montana. But right now, he’s the Good Enough One, not the Great One.
If Belichick is primarily responsible for the Patriots’ eminence, then that’s all Jones will ever have to be —very good, not an all-time great.
Deep down, Belichick might prefer it that way.