Former Bills great Steve Tasker saw his team cycle through 12 quarterbacks between the end of the Jim Kelly era in 1996 and the start of the Josh Allen era in 2018.
He also saw the Dolphins and Jets — and, let’s face it, most of the NFL — flop continually at quarterback over the past two decades, especially with first-round picks.
Yet Bill Belichick takes one crack at a rookie QB, taking Mac Jones 15th overall in April, and seems to have hit a home run.
“They should write a book on how to handle a young quarterback,” Tasker said of the Patriots. “They just built the thing around what they knew they were going to be working with at that spot. I think the Patriots deserve a lot of credit for how easy they make it look.”
When Tom Brady won the Super Bowl last February, it provided plenty of fuel to those who believe Brady was responsible for most of the Patriots’ success over the last two decades, not Belichick.
But when it comes to Jones’s rapid development and the Patriots’ surprising 8-4 record entering Monday’s showdown with the Bills, Belichick and Josh McDaniels are deservedly getting most of the credit. Belichick has nudged slightly ahead of the Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury as the betting favorite to win Coach of the Year. Even former rivals such as Rex Ryan begrudgingly acknowledge Belichick’s handling of a rookie quarterback has been “amazing” and “this is his best job he’s ever done coaching.”
Meanwhile, Jones is playing the best of all five rookie quarterbacks and becoming the runaway choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Jones just won the award for the month of November, when he was the NFL’s highest-rated passer (117.2).
The NFL got a one-year reprieve from the Patriots’ dominance after Brady left. But that’s all.
“The whole league’s like, ‘Here we go again,’ ” said ESPN’s Matt Hasselbeck, a former 19-year NFL quarterback.
As great as Jones has been this season, few observers believe he would be equally effective with, say, the Jaguars or Jets. But Jones landed with the best coach in modern NFL history, who put the necessary pieces around him.
Belichick spent a record amount of guaranteed money in free agency (approximately $175 million), gave Jones improved weapons (including two productive tight ends), and surrounded him with veterans — on the offensive line, on defense, and with backup quarterback Brian Hoyer.
“I do believe it is so critical where you get drafted to,” Hasselbeck said. “[Jones] for sure would not be 8-4, he wouldn’t have a winning record in Jacksonville. People joked how fast Mac Jones walked to the podium when he got picked by the Patriots. This was like a match made in heaven for him.”
To be fair to Jones, he’s the one executing the plays on the field. He’s not just handing the ball off and throwing a bunch of check-downs. Jones ranks third in the NFL in completion percentage (70.3), and a respectable 12th in yards per attempt (7.48). Most impressively, Jones has thrown a catchable ball — the Patriots have the fewest drops (five) and the lowest percentage of dropped passes (1.8 percent) in the NFL.
McDaniels said Jones has been impressive in the way he retains information and applies it on the field, calling him a “sponge.”
“He really digests information at a pretty quick pace,” McDaniels said. “He usually gives me very good feedback for what he saw, which is a great sign for a young player. He has good answers to any questions that I have, and he has a great attitude about going out there and trying to do everything right, which I love.”
Hasselbeck said he has been impressed with how much responsibility Jones has at the line of scrimmage. McDaniels said it has been easy to put more on Jones’s plate as the season has progressed because of Jones’s work ethic.
“The thing you can appreciate the most about a young player is when they come into the meeting and they’re prepared,” McDaniels said. “A lot of times with the young players you need to kind of egg them on in terms of watching things on their own . . . He comes into the meetings prepared, he asks good questions, and when you teach him, there’s a retention that is pretty neat to see.”
McDaniels certainly deserves credit for putting Jones in a position to succeed. The Patriots have good balance on offense, with runs on 44.6 percent of plays, 10th most in the NFL. Jones has thrown a lot of high-percentage passes to his running backs (21.8 percent, eighth highest among quarterbacks). And Jones is getting the ball out before the pass rush gets to him, as he has been pressured on just 19 percent of his drop backs, fourth lowest among 34 QBs.
“Every day is a new opportunity to pore into him,” McDaniels said. “For coaches it’s a great opportunity because you’re kind of starting at the foundational level, and you just build and build from there.”
McDaniels said the plan is simple: Don’t do anything in a game that Jones isn’t comfortable with during the week at practice.
“My expectations for him each week would be to execute the things that I’ve seen him execute in practice, and do them well in the game under pressure,” McDaniels said. “The more you feel like they understand what they’re doing and the more you see it happen properly in practice, I think it naturally just changes what you’re asking them to do. If we don’t feel good about something, we toss it out. And now I know you can do these things well and I expect that to happen on Sunday.”
The best reflection of the job Belichick and McDaniels have done in putting their rookie quarterback in a position to thrive is the fact that Jones has more wins (eight) than Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields combined (six).
“Josh and Bill came into this year understanding, ‘OK, we’ve got a young quarterback, let’s not throw him to the wolves,’ ” said ESPN’s Rob Ninkovich, a former Patriot. “Mac Jones, if he went to Jacksonville, he would probably be in the hamster wheel of, new coach every two years, always looking average. But he comes to New England, they’ve got a great roster, great running game, stability on the offensive line, and stability in coaching. They’ve done a really great job of taking care of him and not putting him in tough positions.”