FOXBOROUGH — Matthew Judon was all smiles inside the Patriots postgame meeting room Sunday, even after he’d waited out the supposed arrival of his head coach and risked ascending to the microphone before Bill Belichick walked in anyway, knowing the coach could arrive any moment and replace him mid-thought.
When your team wins a game the way the Patriots did Sunday — beating the Jets on what was essentially a walkoff punt return by Marcus Jones — there is no such thing as a bad mood. So Judon, the best defensive player on the field for yet another Sunday, took to the mike and did his best head coach impression, sharing some thoughts on the cold, windswept 10-3 victory before even being asked any questions.
“What a heck of a game,” he said. “What a way to end it, man, walk off. Defense played a heck of a game. Offense … uh … did their part. And Marcus Jones. Marcus Jones.”
Marcus Jones deserved the double shout-out for the daring, electrifying, game-winning 84-yard punt return for a touchdown he pulled off with five seconds remaining, and certainly Judon deserved one as well after increasing his NFL sack lead to 13 with another sack and a half. He was part of a defense that harassed Zach Wilson all afternoon, reducing the Jets’ second-year, first-round quarterback to a defiant, defensive mess, chucking the ball downfield during the game and ducking accountability after it.
Judon was absolutely correct: Defense and special teams did their part.
But when the dust settles from the joy of the team’s third straight win and ongoing climb up the AFC East ladder, it’s hard not to feel a bit like Judon, searching for something good to say about the one unit that is clearly not pulling its weight. As much as the offense moved the ball against a very good Jets defense — 297 yards gained compared with the Jets’ meager 103 — the red-zone woes continue (0 for 2 in addition to two missed field goals), the downfield plays remain elusive, and points are just so darn hard to come by.
With seven games to play and a playoff dream still alive, the same old question remains: Is Mac Jones the answer at quarterback? Is he a franchise guy? When the salary-cap gurus come calling after next season and the organization has to make a decision about a fifth-year option, will there be enough progress to keep building around him?
The jury is still out.
Even if this year’s team somehow sneaks into the tournament, is there any reason to believe he can do anything more than last season’s first-round flameout? One week after completing his self-described “full audit” of his own play, Jones still feels stuck in neutral. He is not nearly as bad in his second year as Wilson, but still idling at a point in the season when it is vital to start revving the engine. We see it. He sees it. The NFL sees it.
“Today it was us against the Jets and really us against ourselves,” Jones said. “We want to do better, score more than 3 points, that’s not good enough. It’s kind of the same story here. We’ll figure it out. It takes time and execution, that’s what it comes down to.”
To be fair: Maybe it’s the rotating problems along the offensive line — and with injuries to David Andrews and Isaiah Wynn Sunday, that problem isn’t getting any better any time soon. Or maybe it’s the ongoing tutelage of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, the weird two-headed offensive coordinator system Belichick continues to employ.
But Jones doesn’t help himself, sacked six more times and not always because Quinnen Williams anchors a monster defensive line. Jones holds onto the ball too long on some plays, which opens the door to a sack or a holding penalty, both of which send the offense backward. On other plays, he stares down a favorite receiver too long, missing someone else who is open.
Seven punts, two missed field goals, and one successful kick will not cut it going forward. And in the NFL, always a production-over-potential league, time is not a developing player’s friend.
“I think you look at a number of quarterbacks in this league that are very good players now that maybe weren’t in their second year or weren’t in their first three years,” veteran Matthew Slater said when I asked him about judging Jones to this point.
“Not to say Mac’s not doing a great job, but I’m saying in general. I think we rush to judge in this league, but how quickly we write off players because they don’t meet outside expectations.”
“We can’t fall into that. We let Coach evaluate and do those things and in the meantime just focus and get better. Those [contract decisions] are things that players can’t concern themselves with. We just can’t. We don’t have very much control over that. All I can say is he’s our guy.
“He’s our guy.”
Running back Damien Harris, whose 65 rushing yards represented the best offensive output of the day, said of his close friend Jones: “I can speak for myself and also for our entire team too that we feel extremely fortunate to have Mac as our quarterback.”
Players should absolutely support their quarterback, and after an afternoon of watching a truly dismal effort by the guy on the other sideline, Jones is deserving of their praise. But the hard questions remain.