In a season of lowlights for Mac Jones, this was the lowest, and you don’t need an advanced degree in football to know it.
The final pass Jones threw Sunday in Germany, the one that resulted in his 10th interception of the season, was more than ugly enough to earn him the benching that came after it. Rushed by phantom pressure, short-armed off his back foot, embarrassingly short of wide-open end-zone target Mike Gesicki, and straight into Julian Blackmon’s hands instead, it was a throw that could prove ugly enough to cost Jones his starting job.
And who would argue if that’s what happens? Jones is broken, devolving into a textbook example of a quarterback gone bad. Everything that was supposed to be his strength (poise in the pocket, good decision making) is gone, and anything he was supposed to improve upon (arm strength, mobility) has regressed. If he’s replaced as the starter, that’s on him.
But make no mistake: If that happens, it’s on the Patriots, too, because they broke Jones as much as he broke himself.
The arc of Jones’s three-year Patriot life is an embarrassment of coaching malpractice and personnel mismanagement, one that turned a promising rookie season into this hideous mess.
There is no shortage of blame in this destruction of a quarterback.
Start here: Jones hasn’t been good enough this season — that’s inarguable. The Patriots are 2-8 on his watch, and are only secure in not falling to 2-9 next weekend because they mercifully have a bye. When they return Thanksgiving weekend to face the Giants, there can be no surprise whatsoever if he is no longer under center.
Even he seemed to feel that more acutely than ever Sunday, fighting back his emotions in a brutal postgame news conference, owning up to mistakes he knows he shouldn’t be making but is seemingly helpless to stop.
He described the interception as simply “a terrible throw,” answered a question about his coach still believing him by admitting, “To make people believe, you’ve got to be better,” and said of the sideline tongue-lashing he received from offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien after an earlier near-interception, “It’s really hard out there in the NFL. It’s really good defense. But there was a lot of open guys out there that I could have hit.”
His confidence is clearly shaken. He looks nothing like the rookie who led the Patriots to a 10-7 record and a playoff berth, who used a few injury-replacement slots to snag an invite to the Pro Bowl, who finished second in NFL AP Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, and who threw for 3,801 yards with 22 touchdowns against 13 picks.
That was more like the player Bill Belichick expected to get when he drafted Jones with the 15th overall pick in 2021, banking on the pedigree of a national-championship Alabama QB who would be advanced enough to handle New England’s complex offensive system, who would work hard enough to grasp offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s complicated play calls, who would be confident enough to lead veteran players around him.
But Belichick has failed him so much in the last two years.
Replacing McDaniels with the head-scratching, never-run-an-offense-before coaching tandem of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. Jettisoning them after a season in favor of O’Brien. Putting Jones behind a revolving door of retread offensive linemen around dependable center David Andrews (necessary after letting Joe Thuney leave just as Jones was arriving, or Ted Karras leave after a solid year in front of the rookie Jones). A stunning lack of game-breaking talent at wide receiver, made worse by letting favored Jones target Jakobi Meyers walk away to the Raiders. No interest in retaining solid running back and Jones bestie Damien Harris, and failing to add a good third-down back to give Jones a dependable outlet.
Eighty-three career sacks later, including a season-high five by halftime Sunday, and Jones is a shell of himself. And now, more than ever, the sacks are as much on Jones as they are on the line. He’s jittery, as evidenced by the quick release on the final interception, as he no longer seems willing (or able) to stand in the pocket and take hits, damaged enough that he is hearing footsteps.
At this point, he’d be better off without the Patriots as much as they’d be better off without him.
By the time Jones finished talking Sunday, his voice was shaky and his eyes were glassy. He quickly moved away from the microphone after answering a final question about how this benching feels different from his previous two benchings, after which Belichick immediately said Jones would be back at starter the following week. Not this time.
“I didn’t play very well,” Jones said. “I’ve played well in my career before, but just not right now. It’s peaks and valleys, but I’m kind of in a valley right now, and just got to bounce back.”
As cynical as sports can make us, no one enjoys watching a player come apart the way Jones has this season. Not the fans, not the media, and not his fellow players.
“He’s got to stay positive,” team captain Matthew Slater said. “Right now everybody is counting him out. I’m sure there’s a lot of negativity.
“He’s got to ignore the noise, keep his head down, keep working, just like the rest of us.”
Good advice, but probably too late.
Jones is broken, and as much as that’s on him, it’s on the Patriots, too.