Bill O’Brien does not need to light a fire under Mac Jones.
The Patriots’ newly minted offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach just needs to keep Jones’s embers smoldering.
The O’Brien-Jones dynamic will be the biggest key to the revitalization of a Patriots offense that struggled in 2022 in several categories, most notably third-down and red-zone efficiency.
Jones regressed after a Pro Bowl rookie campaign in which he helped lead the Patriots to a 10-win season and a playoff berth. There were certainly mitigating factors this season, including an offensive line that was constantly in flux because of injuries and inconsistencies, and the receivers’ inability to gain separation consistently.
Those issues likely will be atop the offseason agenda as the Patriots look to maximize the all-important window of having a starting quarterback on his rookie contract. They will need to make a decision on whether to pick up Jones’s fifth-year option following the 2023 season.
“Mac has the ability to play quarterback in this league,” coach Bill Belichick said the day after the season ended. “We have to all work together to try to find the best way as a football team — which obviously the quarterback is an important position — to be more productive than we were last year. So that’s incumbent upon all of us. We’ll all work together on that. Again, look for better results.”
The first step was taken with the hiring of O’Brien, who has worked with Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson in the NFL and most recently with Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young at Alabama. O’Brien held the OC/quarterbacks coach title in his previous stints in Foxborough and Tuscaloosa.
In O’Brien’s three seasons calling plays for the Patriots (with Brady pulling the trigger), the club finished sixth, first, and third in the NFL in scoring and collected 37 wins.
Known as a stern taskmaster, O’Brien demands a lot, and that bodes well for Jones, who expressed a desire to be coached harder during the season.
Jones is a cerebral signal-caller with a quick release and a good arm. He possesses good leadership qualities and enjoys the support of his teammates, who rave about his work ethic.
Despite the struggles — and having to hear Bailey Zappe chants during some home games — Jones helped keep the Patriots in the playoff race heading into the regular-season finale, with an obvious assist from New England’s stout and opportunistic defense.
Jones had arguably his best outing of the season in that loss in Buffalo, throwing three touchdown passes. With O’Brien calling the shots, Jones will look to build off that performance.
One of the silver linings of the 2022 season was the performance of Zappe, who threw for 781 yards and five touchdowns in parts of four games, including two starts (both wins).
The fourth-round rookie never looked wide-eyed as he took over for Brian Hoyer early in Green Bay and helped the Patriots get to overtime in an eventual loss there.
Zappe clearly was an apt summer school student after setting FBS season passing records for yards and touchdowns at Western Kentucky.
Zappe, who has three years left on his rookie contract, picked up the New England offense quickly. He will provide nice competition for Jones, while also giving excellent looks for the defense throughout the spring and summer.
Hoyer, who is under contract for another year, suffered a concussion in his only game in Week 4 and spent the rest of the season on injured reserve. His leadership as a veteran voice can’t be understated.
Hoyer worked under O’Brien in New England and Houston and could serve as a liaison between the coach and the quarterbacks in 2023.
Top free agent quarterbacks: Tom Brady (Buccaneers), Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers), Taylor Heinicke (Commanders), Sam Darnold (Panthers), Jacoby Brissett (Browns).
Top draftable quarterbacks: Will Levis (Kentucky), Bryce Young (Alabama), Tanner McKee (Stanford), Hendon Hooker (Tennessee), C.J. Stroud (Ohio State).