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FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 26: Quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots sits on the bench after the loss to the New Orleans Saints after the game at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Patriots were never going to return to playoff contention because their rookie quarterback lifted the players around him. It needed to be the other way around. Three games in, it’s been more the opposite.

Mac Jones has practically been hung out to dry in the Patriots’ two losses to start the 2021 season. The team was always going to be defined not by Jones’ own performance, but that of an overhauled roster designed to support and protect a rookie in his first game experience, and that roster has not been good enough. If the Patriots were going to be more like Russell Wilson’s Seahawks in 2012 or Andrew Luck’s Colts in 2011, they needed to protect against Jones’ rookie mistakes. Jones can’t make up for theirs. He’s not ready for that.

Instead, the protection has broken down, and at the most fundamental levels. That starts with the literal protection by the offensive line. Jones took 11 hits in Sunday’s 28-13 loss to the Saints, somehow more than the nine he absorbed in a Week 1 loss to Miami. Jones did miss some opportunities with inaccurate throws down the field, but not all of them came with a clean pocket.

“It is our job to stand up for him and he is standing back there and delivering the ball, so we have to help uphold our end of the bargain and the entire team has to hold up our end of the bargain better,” center David Andrews said Sunday. “We just have to play better overall.”

The pass-catchers made worse mistakes than Jones had in his first two career starts. Jonnu Smith’s bobble that ended up in the hands of Malcolm Jenkins for a pick-six was a killer. Hunter Henry (and a few others) spoiled a fourth-and-1 try with a false start penalty. Nelson Agholor caught just two of his eight targets and appeared to have a miscommunication with Jones when he ran left on a deep post that Jones launched down the middle to no one.

These are guys who are better than what they’ve shown, who have played far below what the Patriots expect of them, based on how they’ve been paid. They still have the benefit of time left to get better, but they need to have the urgency to match.

“I’ve been through a lot of these, unfortunately, but this is a long season,” Henry said after the game. “We can’t hang our heads, we can’t let this linger and snowball into multiple games. We haven’t been great offensively early in this season, so we’ve got to really go to work. It’s a lot of new guys, but there’s no excuse for that. I mean, we’re pros, we’ve got to handle our business. We’ve got to be better and that’s got to start this week.”

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 26: Marcus Williams #43 of the New Orleans Saints tackles Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots during the game at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 26: Marcus Williams #43 of the New Orleans Saints tackles Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots during the game at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Looming over everything was an air of bad coaching and preparation. The aforementioned procedural penalties and turnovers. A coverage breakdown on a simple pass to Alvin Kamara for a walk-in touchdown. Ten men on the field on the Saints’ dagger in the fourth quarter. Deep ball after deep ball, when shorter passes had worked well enough to move the ball between the 20’s in the first two games. Odd play-calling when they finally get to the red zone.

Jones made the first truly back-breaking mistake of his career when he threw his ill-advised first interception, which helped set up the Saints’ second touchdown to go up 14-3. He also took responsibility for changing plays to no avail.

“I think it just goes back to execution,” Jones said. “I can do a better job just sticking to my reads and being patient and letting things develop. I didn’t do a good job of that today. We’ll get better, and we’ve made it a point of emphasis. Today it didn’t show, but we’re going to just flip the page and continue to work and try to find ways, whether it’s creativity or whatever. It’s really not my job to call the plays.”

But those rookie moments are going to happen. If the Patriots want to win enough games to get back in the playoff mix, it’s on everyone around the quarterback to lift the rookie up, both on and off the field.

A dejected Jones lingered on the Patriots’ bench after the game ended. Nelson Agholor and others stopped by for pep talks, both on the bench and later in the locker room. Publicly, Jones has been hard on himself and shouldering a level of responsibility for the Patriots’ struggles that isn’t necessary. It’s important that his teammates and coaches take on some of that burden, and remind him that it’s one game out of what could be hundreds in a long career.

Forget Jones, everyone else needs to get better. Before it gets worse.

“As far as Mac, man, he’ll be fine,” said Henry. “This is all new to him. It’s a long season. It’s a little different than college. We’ve got to move on and not let this snowball.”

MORE: What’s behind the Patriots’ red zone struggles?

Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.