What was supposed to be a Leap Year for Mac Jones now is trending in the wrong direction toward a Lost Year.
Jones and the much-maligned Patriots offense finally made some progress and some plays Sunday during a 37-26 loss to the Ravens at Gillette Stadium, only to see it wiped away by a larger loss — Jones suffering a nasty high-ankle sprain that could force him to injured reserve. That would result in the second-year quarterback missing a minimum of four games.
Any significant missed time for Mac is a huge blow for him and the wobbly 1-2 Patriots. The context for the Patriots season is declaring what type of quarterback Jones can evolve into. Just how high is his signal-caller ceiling? Is he a QB who elevates an offense or merely operates it? Is he a passer who affects his surroundings or is affected by them?
Determining all that runs parallel with the big-picture blueprint for the Patriots resuming serious Super Bowl contention.
Now, with an inexperienced offensive coaching staff, a revamped offense, and a significant ankle injury, this is shaping up as a setback season for Jones. That’s a more damaging result than anything that happens on the field in 2022.
There’s no greater asset in the NFL than an elite franchise quarterback. They tip the balance. This injury further blurs the long-term picture of when and if Jones will evolve into one of those coveted players.
For two decades, it seemed the ball always bounced Bill Belichick’s way. The sun always shone brightest on Fort Foxborough. Now, that reservoir of good fortune has run dry.
Jones was hurt on his very last throw of the day, which resulted in his third interception. His cleat got caught underneath him as mountain of a man Calais Campbell crashed down on Mac’s left leg. It was the third straight Patriots drive that ended with a turnover, a footnote to Jones hopping off on one foot in excruciating pain.
A Patriots offense that has looked hobbled and hollow since training camp finally took a step forward only to watch its most important piece limp away.
Any momentum Mac and the Patriots gained from their most productive offensive performance of the season — an imperfect effort that saw them pile up 26 points and 447 yards of offense, but also four costly turnovers — now comes to a screeching halt if Mac is lost for multiple weeks.
His loss represents a devastating backslide for a team trying to find a football foothold as it climbs back from a frustrating preseason on offense.
The Patriots had scored just 24 points combined in their first two games. They notched 2 more points than that against the Ravens and left more on the table thanks to self-sabotage.
“We moved the ball. We had some explosive plays,” said Belichick Monday. “Need to finish better in the red area and obviously not turn the ball over. We just keep coming back to the same thing. We moved the ball, didn’t punt much, but the turnovers obviously hurt us.”
That has been the uncharacteristic story of the Patriots season thus far — self-harm on offense. It has gone hand-in-hand with a bumpy sophomore season for Jones, as he adjusts to new offensive architects Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.
The Patriots rank second in the NFL in giveaways with eight, and they’re tied for second-to-last in turnover differential at minus-4.
On the season, Jones has completed 66 percent of his attempts and thrown two touchdowns and five interceptions, posting a passer rating of 76.2. He hasn’t looked comfortable or confident in the post-Josh McDaniels offensive attack.
But Sunday against a bad Baltimore defense felt like a building block for Jones right up until it became a stumbling block of injury.
Jones was 22 of 32 yards for 321 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions, including a gut-buster in the end zone on third and goal from the Baltimore 10 with 9:06 left. The Ravens brought Damarion Williams a corner blitz. Under siege, Jones tossed up a parabola that had no chance because he and DeVante Parker weren’t on the same page. That snuffed out seemingly surefire points with the Patriots trailing, 31-26.
Still, Jones made more than his fair share of plays, including rushing five times for 31 yards and his first career touchdown. He connected with Parker — who corralled five catches for 156 yards — on three pass plays of 30 yards or more.
He regained the swagger he displayed during his Pro Bowl rookie season and his swashbuckling days at Alabama.
“I love Mac to death,” said linebacker Mack Wilson. “Obviously, we went to college together. I’ve seen him grow. I’ve seen him put the work in. The leader he’s become for this team, the way he carries himself every day.
“Throughout that whole game I was just smiling from ear to ear with the plays he was making, running the ball. I’m just telling guys, ‘That’s the Mac I know.’ The Mac who plays with swagger and has fun.”
While Mac made mistakes Sunday, he also kept the Patriots in the game, going toe-to-toe with Lamar Jackson for much of the contest. That part was promising. That promise is now rendered moot.
The questions are for how long and at what cost to the Patriots’ short-term and long-term success? Backup Brian Hoyer has lost 11 straight starts dating back to 2016. He’s a pro, but in an offense that already has a slim margin for error, his limitations are highlighted.
It just adds to the muddled mess of Mac’s season thus far. It was two months to Monday that Belichick painted a rosy picture for Jones in Year Two.
“He’s made tremendous strides. He did a great job last year, but he’s starting it from a much, much higher point this year than where he started last year,” said Belichick on July 26.
Just when Mac was getting back on track, it feels like he’ll be starting back at Square One.
Both the second-year signal-caller and the Patriots are going to feel the pain from an injury that hurts Jones’s development.