It’s really all on Mac Jones, now
It’s the Mac Jones show in New England.
Remains to be seen whether this show gets renewed, or cancelled after a bad collection of episodes. But Bill Belichick’s decision to cut Bailey Zappe and Malik Cunningham sent a clear message to Jones and the Patriots, whether intentional or not: the 2023 story arc hinges on “Massachusetts Mac.”
Zappe and Cunningham both ended up back in New England on the practice squad on Wednesday, preserving continuity behind Jones. But if Zappe’s crappy summer wasn’t enough of an indication, his journey through waivers and back to the Pats certainly was.
The quarterback competition was never real. Zappe wasn’t a threat. He wasn’t even a Patriot, for a time. And regardless of Belichick’s underlying motives for the way he handled Zappe, it qualifies as a vote of confidence in Jones as THE guy for 2023.
And there’s reason to be confident that the 2023 edition of the Patriots offense will be vastly improved from 2022. (Not that they need to do much to get there.) Jones is confident. His receivers are confident. They are confident in each other. We saw it on the field, heard it in the press conferences. That alone has marked a striking difference from a year ago.
“We’re gelling as a group,” Kendrick Bourne said Wednesday. “I feel like Mac is in a great place, as the leader. I think that trickles to the whole team. So, believing in him and believing in each other, I think we’re going into the game with a lot of confidence.”
Jones’ confidence is of paramount importance, but it’s important to know where that came from. It’s the presence of Bill O’Brien, who is at the very least a real, competent offensive coordinator, and a major step up from Matt Patricia in 2022. He may even be a better fit for Jones and the Pats’ current pass-catching group than Josh McDaniels was.
There’s also evidence that the Jones-O’Brien combo is better for young players and new faces than combos of the past: the quick emergence of both rookie sixth-round receivers, Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas. Both have real talent that popped off the field during camp, but their early assimilation into the system has impressed teammates.
And hey, maybe there IS one way Jones can be better than Tom Brady ever was: can he more consistently build and maintain a healthy level of trust with receivers, especially inexperienced ones? Based on how he’s rekindled his chemistry with Bourne and clicked with the rookies, perhaps he is.
“I think confidence is key, really just with teammates, knowing that you can trust them and they can trust you is a big thing for me,” Jones said. “Whether that’s the plays, your leadership style or just having a conversation, I feel like just the learning experiences that you have, ‘hey I saw this, let’s try this, or hey Mac, throw it like this because I’m open on this route.’ So, I’m always open to hear what they have to say, and that’s what’s important to me.
“That’s where my confidence comes from: all the other guys in the room, the offensive line and those guys gelling together.”
But wait. He mentioned the 1,600-pound elephant in the room. The offensive line.
Tackle is by far the biggest problem on the team entering the 2023 season, and could torpedo the whole thing if it goes badly enough. Even with full health, concerns will persist about a revolving door at right tackle and the reliability of Trent Brown. It could be especially concerning with the opposing defensive fronts the Patriots face in the early part of their 2023 schedule.
That being said … no chance the offensive line is as makeshift and leaky as it looked in the summer, when they never fielded a lineup with guards Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu together. When the top guys are all on the field, they have a solid group up front. Not the best, but you don’t need the best – especially if you have a really good quarterback.
And here’s the thing: if Jones is really good, he should have enough in front of him to do the two things Belichick always says when pressed for details about the gameplan: move the ball and score points. Enough to compete with the elite teams in the NFL? Maybe not. But enough to keep the Patriots competitive in games, notch at least nine wins, get back to the playoffs? Yes. But that depends on him.
How can he do that, even with protection problems? Make changes at the line. Get the ball out quickly. He’s done a lot of that in the summer, and O’Brien should have safety valves in place for him. It may limit their ability to make explosive plays down the field, which would be exposed if they fall behind in games. But Jones should have a good-enough operation to piece drives together, score touchdowns, and make the Patriots a competitive team in the AFC.
It’s set up for Jones to deliver the kind of season New England has been starved to see since losing Brady. There’s enough around him that we can no longer make excuses for him if it doesn’t go well. He got his coordinator. He has a solid, deep group of pass-catchers, and a healthy offensive line is at least decent. And he has Belichick’s stamp as the man under center for 2023.
So, now it’s time for the show. This better be good.
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Read more about the New England Patriots’ initial 53-man roster below.