A curious question has risen out of the Patriots’ first two games: why aren’t they throwing into the end zone or pushing the ball downfield more with Mac Jones, despite opportunities to do so?
Simplest answer? The Patriots are cautiously managing their first-round rookie quarterback and the way they run the offense as he learns on the job. They certainly didn’t need to cut Jones loose against the Jets, who appear to be taking the opposite approach with Zach Wilson. Check mark goes to the Patriots on that one.
But could the Patriots have called more aggressive plays in the passing game over the first two weeks? Has Jones passed up opportunities to push it? Particularly in the red zone, where they are 2-for-7 so far, and where Jones has yet to attempt a pass across the goal line?
Surprisingly enough, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels says the Patriots aren’t shackling Jones like it appears. In a video conference on Tuesday, he expanded upon the numerous challenges that face quarterbacks and passing offenses on every play and every decision. Pass protection and the coverage shown by the defense are chief among those. Jones has a responsibility to calculate many things together and distill it into a single decision, and make the right one, while the rest of the team has to execute properly as well.
In other words, it’s not as simple as letting the kid sling it and hoping for the best (hopefully the Jets were listening). But McDaniels told reporters that the Patriots do want Jones to push the ball downfield – but only when the time is right.
“Believe me, there’s not a whole lot that we’re holding back for him,” McDaniels said. “Certainly, like I said, you want to be able to test those [deep] areas of the field as you move forward. But I also want him to make smart decisions, I want him to protect the football, and I want him to be aggressive when it’s time to be aggressive.
“It’s not like he’s not doing that. It’s just there’s certain times when it’s the right time to do it, and certain times when it is not, and I’ve got to continue to work hard myself to provide our offense with opportunities to do that if it presents itself.”
Jones probably didn’t need to shoulder responsibility for a lack of downfield throws, especially considering the Patriots beat the Jets by 19 points and came within one fumble of possibly being 2-0. The kid has played precisely 120 minutes of football. Contrast that with Tom Brady, who has played about 20,000.
But, despite the small sample size – and despite facing two aggressive defenses that presented protection problems up front and gave Jones little time to throw – the rookie has now said twice that he wishes he pushed the ball downfield more in his first two starts. But he agrees with McDaniels, as he should, that it comes down to making good decisions and having everyone on the same page.
“I think it’s just trial and error,” Jones said Wednesday. “Just trying to – first of all – run the play correctly. Get it to the first read if he’s open or whatever and just stick to my reads. Plays will come. You can’t chase plays that aren’t there or you think might be there.
“There’s definitely times when I watch the film and I wish I threw the ball down the field more, but at the same time I’m just going to continue to do what I do and take what they give me [on defense].”
Clearly, the Patriots haven’t had to open up the whole playbook or take unnecessary risks in the first two weeks. But they’ll face those situations eventually. Maybe the New Orleans Saints, who boast a high-ranking run defense, present Jones’ first opportunity to target the deeper areas more often.
But Patriots fans certainly don’t want to have a Zach Wilson situation. Neither do McDaniels or Bill Belichick. So while McDaniels may not be holding Jones back, he’s not running a schoolyard offense, either. It’s all about decision-making and team execution. So it’s important for literally everyone to exercise patience for those bigger plays to come.