Devin McCourty scanned the room at his retirement press conference Tuesday, thanking the teammates, coaches, and family members who helped him along his 13-year NFL journey.
Right in front of him, impossible to miss, was the Patriots’ starting quarterback.
“I look at my guy Mac here — first row, here to support me,” McCourty said. “I know the team has great leadership.”
The symbolism was perfect. With McCourty hanging it up, and the memories of the Tom Brady glory days fading fast, the Patriots are officially Mac Jones’s team now.
Jones seems to understand this. He stayed in Foxborough to train this offseason while most players scattered across the country. He sat front and center at McCourty’s ceremony.
Jones also seems to understand the stakes involved for 2023.
It’s all on him now. No more excuses.
It’s time to perform, and it’s time for Jones to lift the franchise and make the Patriots competitive again.
Jones surely knows he’s not on the firmest of ground. Two years and 31 starts into his career, Jones doesn’t have a signature win, doesn’t have a postseason win, and hasn’t solidified his standing inside the locker room. McCourty said as much last week when he acknowledged that some players wanted the Patriots to stick with Bailey Zappe over Jones.
Jones’s rookie season was encouraging, but his second season was miserable. His stats took a nosedive, the Patriots stumbled to 8-9, and Jones struggled with accuracy and decision-making. He showed his frustrations, yelling at teammates and coaches during games.
A large swath of Patriots fans wants the team to get Lamar Jackson this offseason. Jones’s insanely cheap contract ($2.08 million salary in 2023) is likely what will keep that from happening.
There were a few mitigating circumstances, though, that contributed to Jones’s rough season — an inexperienced coordinator in Matt Patricia, average talent at wide receiver and tight end, and a high ankle sprain that took a while to heal.
Those are all fair points. But they have mostly been addressed.
While the Patriots haven’t made the most important move — adding a true No. 1 elite receiver — Bill Belichick and the Krafts have indeed put better pieces around Jones.
The team on paper should be competitive — as long as the quarterback plays at a high level.
One major issue in 2022 was that the Patriots didn’t have enough size at wide receiver. DeVante Parker was the only one who could win a jump ball, and the other four (Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Tyquan Thornton) were all sub-201-pound receivers who struggled to win at the line of scrimmage and gain yards after the catch.
Another issue was tight end Jonnu Smith, who didn’t run many routes or contribute much other than designed screen passes and end arounds.
The Patriots’ free agency moves this year have been modest, but they should produce better results.
Swapping out Meyers for JuJu Smith-Schuster should give them a more physical edge in the middle of the field. Smith-Schuster is one inch smaller but 15 pounds heavier than Meyers, and is much better after the catch, averaging 5.8 yards per reception last year (ninth among receivers), compared with 3.6 for Meyers (46th).
Swapping Smith out for former Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki also should be an upgrade. Gesicki doesn’t get much separation and was phased out of Miami’s offense last year, but he at least can run routes and is great at making contested catches in the middle of the field. The Patriots now have two legitimate receiving tight ends instead of an oversized halfback in Smith.
They still need a fifth wide receiver, and if they want to be Super Bowl contenders, it needs to be an elite one. They either must trade for DeAndre Hopkins or Jerry Jeudy, or draft one with the 14th pick in April.
But as the roster currently stands, the mix of receivers is intriguing. Jones now has three jump-ball weapons in Gesicki (6-6), Hunter Henry (6-5), and Parker (6-3). He has a burner in Thornton, who ran a 4.28 in the 40 and should have a better grasp of the offense in Year 2. He has a solid possession receiver in Bourne, who had the highest catch percentage on the Patriots last year (73 percent). And now he has a physical slot receiver in Smith-Schuster who can ideally turn 6-yard throws into 10-yard gains.
Add in budding superstar Rhamondre Stevenson out of the backfield, and the offense doesn’t look half bad. A good quarterback can win with that cast.
Then there is the upgrade that is more difficult to quantify but is the key to the entire season — the switch from Patricia and Joe Judge to Bill O’Brien.
The Patriots have acknowledged that last year’s experiment was a disaster. Patricia was learning on the fly as play caller, and was stretched too thin as offensive line coach too. Judge was charged with developing Jones in his second season even though Judge had never coached quarterbacks before.
This year, the Patriots hired an experienced coordinator and QB coach in O’Brien, and an experienced line coach in Adrian Klemm. This is a representative, professional coaching staff with a record of NFL success. Jones should have all the wisdom and guidance he needs to succeed.
The Patriots didn’t put Jones in a position to succeed in 2022, and a lot went wrong to derail his season. But his ankle is healed, the Patriots got him a couple of better receivers, and they hired a couple of real offensive coaches.
No more excuses for Jones in 2023. It’s on him now to produce.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.