Socci’s Notebook: ‘Tremendous work ethic’ helps Mac Jones make ‘dramatic improvement’
Tuesday’s inbox, like every other day by late morning, was cluttered with an influx of emails. Newsletters from newspapers and magazines. Notifications from retailers and podcasters. Press releases and political solicitations.
A few important or interesting enough to be read immediately. Some saved for later. Most, including many that still arrive despite repeated attempts to unsubscribe to them, promptly deleted, forever unopened.
Two of them — one from The Athletic, the other sent by Sports Illustrated — featured nearly identical subject lines related to Monday’s top story in the NFL.
“Kyler Murray gets assigned homework,” the first read, arriving just after 8 a.m.
“Kyler Murray Has Homework,” the second heralded, having shown up two hours later.
They referred to the detail reported by NFL Network from Murray’s new contract with the Arizona Cardinals, covering five years and amounting to as much as $230.5 million, including $160 million guaranteed.
Murray, the top overall draft choice in 2019 who’s about to turn 25, is required to independently study for no less than four hours in preparation for every upcoming game. Work done in team periods doesn’t count. Multi-tasking by watching TV, playing video games or browsing the internet isn’t allowed.
At best, it’s bizarre. At heart, it looks like an indictment of Murray’s work ethic and an invitation by the Cardinals to question their decision to commit so much to him.
Before either briefing with Monday’s news reached the inbox, Tuesday’s headlines — locally, at least — were already being generated in the first of a series of Zooms from Gillette Stadium.
Speaking on the morning before the official opening of his 23rd training camp as Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick stuck to his usual short script on the subjects of coaching titles, play calling and job descriptions of once-and-again assistants Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.
Both are “outstanding coaches in every sense of the word, whatever (their) duties entail;” like Belichick’s last media appearance in April, the Pats are still “not really big on titles and all that;” and besides, Bill is “the head coach, ultimately, (he’s) responsible for everything. So, let’s leave it at that, that’s what it is.”
On the topic of his own quarterback, Mac Jones, Belichick spoke at greater length than usual about a young player this time of year. The way he sounded, there won’t be a need to monitor any study halls or include any mandates if and when he and Mac get to a second contract.
“I think Mac’s done a great job,” Belichick said of Jones’s overall growth, which sounds proportionate to his loss of body fat amid an offseason of bicoastal workouts, healthy dinners and a (Tom) House call to doctor his throwing motion. “He’s got a tremendous work ethic in all areas. I think there’s a dramatic improvement.”
Affirming that Jones will “certainly” have input into the Pats’ widely-reported, self-described, streamlined attack, Belichick later ran down a list of Mac’s improvements. Conditioning. Mechanics. Understanding of the Patriots’ offense. Understanding of opposing defenses. Understanding of situations.
“He’s made tremendous strides,” Belichick continued. “His offseason work has been significant. I think everyone recognizes how well he prepares and how much further along he is than he was a year ago.”
For three years in college, Jones prepared for the chance he seized, to start — and star — at Alabama. During his first spring as a pro, he prepared for the chance to compete for the starter’s job on Opening Day. None of it occurred without extra work on his own accord.
How else could Jones control the Pats’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense so well coming out of his first preseason halftime? And charge — head down, eyes up — through an opening created by Cam Newton’s absence to carve up the Giants in joint practices? And then quarterback a 10-win, playoff qualifier ranked sixth in scoring offense, while recording the second-highest completion percentage by an NFL rookie?
Yes, Jones had his struggles, albeit less frequent than his QB classmates. Even at his best, he left plenty of room for improvement. To his credit, Jones recognized it, and as much as anyone, told us so. Within minutes of January’s Wild Card loss at Buffalo, he announced intentions to be stronger, to be better conditioned, to be a more assertive leader.
“Self-aware” was one way Belichick described Jones on Tuesday. Self-motivated was one he left out, not that it was necessary.
A bit later, players Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty and David Andrews also spoke virtually to reporters on the eve of their 15th, 13th and eighth NFL training camps. Slater was asked about the team’s young leaders, and Jones specifically.
“It’s natural for people to look at Mac, because he is the quarterback of this team,” Slater said. “I’m extremely biased. I think the young man is fantastic. I think he’s demonstrated great leadership from the day he walked in this building and I think he’ll continue to do so.
“We’re all excited about what he’s going to be and what he’s going to provide, not just as a player but as a leader for this organization. He continues to grow in that role. Ultimately, this is going to be his team. In a lot of ways, we’re going to take on the personality of our quarterback. But he’s just got to be himself, because that’s good enough.”
When Chris Long retired from his 11-year playing career after the 2018 season, he launched his own media company and its flagship Green Light Podcast, which has since surpassed more than 10 million downloads.
Long’s pod is mostly, yet far from exclusively about football. For instance, its most recent episode features guest Leland Melvin, an NFL hopeful in the mid-eighties as a Detroit Lions’ draftee who became an NASA astronaut and author of his memoir, Chasing Space.
In the prior Green Light episode, Long reconnected with his ex-Philadelphia teammate and fellow former Patriot, Michael Bennett. Over an hour-plus, they talked football and life after football, including an insightful exchange on mental health challenges facing retired athletes.
During their conversation, they contrasted the failure of Urban Meyer to try, as Bennett described, “to build an organization built on the college mentality and built on fear” with Belichick’s model built “on expectation.”
“Yeah,” Long agreed. “He builds it on consistent expectation.”
“If you set a bar that’s consistent and you’re just matter of fact about it, and certainly different players get a little bit different leeway, but for that individual player the expectations are clear.’”
In light of the Long-Bennett remarks, this listener of the pod asked Slater to describe what the word expectation, in a Belichick-Patriot context, means to him.
“There’s a standard that exists here and, obviously, coach Belichick has helped establish that standard over his tenure here. And really it’s about putting your best foot forward every day, coming to work,” Slater explained. “Being accountable, being dependable and putting the team first. That standard never lets up, there’s no day that you come into the building where it’s okay to let that standard slip or it’s okay to let that focus slip.
“Human nature at times tells you maybe to let your foot off the gas or become comfortable. But I think coach has always pushed this team to be at its best all the time. It doesn’t matter who’s been here, the players obviously change and will continue to change, but as long as he’s here, he has an expectation for how this team is going to conduct itself, how it’s going to go about its business.”
When Andrews joined the Patriots in 2015, veteran offensive linemen Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer helped him understand what was expected on a daily basis. Eight years later, he does the same for others.
“You’ve got to prove that you’re prepared and ready to go.” Andrews said. “As a young guy coming in, we talk about it all the time, just do your job. And that can mean so many different things. But it does kind of in my mind wrap it all into one.
“Is your job to show up five minutes before the meeting time and leave five minutes after the last meeting? Maybe some players can do that and do their job very well, and some can’t. I was never one of those players. So that’s just kind of my philosophy on it.”