If only the NFL season had ended in November. It would be so easy to evaluate Mac Jones’s rookie year.
His first three months in the NFL were a resounding success. Jones’s stats improved steadily each month. He led all rookies in every passing statistic. The Patriots won seven games in a row and were in position for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Jones was the NFL’s highest-rated passer in November and was named Rookie of the Month. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels were celebrated as geniuses.
But the season doesn’t end in November. December and January were where the evaluation got complicated for Jones and the Patriots.
“There definitely were bumps. I think it’d be disingenuous to say that there weren’t,” said CBS analyst Charles Davis, who called five Patriots games this season, including the playoff loss to the Bills.
Pinning the Patriots’ 2-4 record and blowout loss in the first round of the playoffs all on Jones is, of course, unfair. The team’s significant issues were laid bare — the defense suddenly got old and slow, and the offense didn’t have nearly enough talent around Jones.
But Jones didn’t do his part, either. Jones threw a pick-6 on the opening drive against the Dolphins. He fell to 26th in the NFL in completion percentage for December and January (60.7), and 24th in passer rating (78.9).
In the playoffs, Jones looked like an understudy compared with Josh Allen, who towered over Jones and showed off the rocket arm and powerful legs that Jones will never have.
“I think in a vacuum, you could be really discouraged,” said ESPN’s Matt Hasselbeck, a former 17-year NFL quarterback. “You look at him and you say, ‘Wow, he looks nothing like Josh Allen, and we’re going to be toe to toe with Josh Allen for years and years.’ ”
But Hasselbeck also believes in Jones’s body of work, and said it’s not fair to write off Jones because of a sluggish finish to his rookie season.
“Mac was far and away the most impressive rookie quarterback, so I think there’s a lot to be excited about,” Hasselbeck said. “If you watch the amount of things the Patriots were having him do pre-snap, I was really impressed. And I just think that this year was like a bonus year in the development of Mac Jones as a quarterback.”
From a big-picture perspective, Jones had a terrific rookie season. The fifth quarterback taken in last April’s draft (15th overall), Jones led all rookies with 3,801 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, a 67.6 completion percentage, and a 92.5 passer rating, which ranked a respectable 15th among all QBs, one spot higher than Allen (92.2).
Jones had more wins (10) than fellow rookies Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields combined (9). He became the third rookie quarterback since 2013 to lead his team to the playoffs (Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson). Jones won six road games, tied for the most by a rookie QB.
“I thought it was one of the surprises of the year, how well he played,” Hasselbeck said. “He’s making run checks at the line of scrimmage, man or zone audibles, he’s moving the protection. That’s the area I was most impressed, just in how accurate he was in moving pass protection. All of the other young quarterbacks, they had no idea.”
But Jones’s performance in December and January raised questions about his ceiling. Belichick famously limited Jones to three passes in a windy win in Buffalo. In the four December/January losses, Jones threw just five touchdown passes against seven interceptions. The Patriots fell behind, 78-17, in the first half of their four losses, and Jones couldn’t pull the team out of it. His arm strength looked average, and Jones didn’t create many plays with his feet.
It raised questions about whether Jones has enough talent to carry a team. Most of the quarterbacks still alive in the playoffs have a huge arm (Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Joe Burrow, even Tom Brady) or are terrific athletes (Allen, Mahomes, Ryan Tannehill).
“I thought the seven-game winning streak kind of encapsulated it,” Davis said. “When it’s all clicking — offense, defense, special teams — the game is played at their pace, at their tempo, and they’re not chasing, he was really good. Where things change is when they couldn’t get the jump. And you saw Saturday night against the Bills it became a track meet, and track meets are not good for that team. Not just Mac, but just the Patriots, period.”
A good rookie season doesn’t always portend a great career. The Jets probably felt great about Mark Sanchez when they reached the AFC Championship game in his first season. The Bengals must have been excited when they reached the playoffs in each of Andy Dalton’s first five seasons.
A pro personnel scout of a team that defeated the Patriots this season also said that Jones may not have the highest ceiling.
“Mac can be as good as the talent around him,” the scout said. “His traits come from the mental processing and work ethic more than from the arm talent or athleticism. He will get guys into position to make plays but will have a difficult time doing it by himself.”
Hasselbeck said Jones needs to improve his arm strength with offseason work.
“Rex Ryan says a lot on our Sunday show that QBs who don’t have really strong arms are going to struggle with velocity late in the year and stuff like that,” Hasselbeck said. “It’s an interesting point. I think you can improve your velocity with mechanics and core strengthening and a lot of the stuff that guys do now. I’m not saying he’s going to be Josh Allen someday, but he can get to the point where he has an NFL arm that can throw in any conditions and any month of the year.”
To be fair to Jones, the teams still alive in the playoffs all have elite weapons, such as Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mike Evans, A.J. Brown, Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, and Ja’Marr Chase.
Hunter Henry, Jakobi Meyers, and Kendrick Bourne were solid, but all are essentially No. 2 options. The Patriots were one of 11 teams that didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver. Brady struggled, too, when the Patriots didn’t give him enough weapons.
Hasselbeck said he “definitely” believes Jones is the Patriots’ answer at quarterback but has doubts about how much he can do without better pieces.
“Hunter Henry is a great start, but he’s not [Rob Gronkowski],” Hasselbeck said. “Is there enough that people would fear that offense? Because it’s OK if they’re not fearing Mac’s arm, but they’ve got to fear something else.”
Jones showed enough progress as a rookie that the Patriots should expect to compete for the playoffs every year.
“They’re going to have to continue to build around him and give him some players, because there are no layups on that offense. Every play is a grind,” Davis said. “But I like where he is. We all said the same thing, that he went to the perfect team for him. I’m going to continue to rely on that and see if he can make that jump. It will be fun to see.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.